Is the decline of desert bighorn sheep from infectious disease the result of low MHC variation?

Gustavo A. Gutierrez-Espeleta, Philip W. Hedrick, Steven T. Kalinowski, Daniel Garrigan, Walter M. Boyce

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

92 Scopus citations


Bighorn sheep populations have greatly declined in numbers and distribution since European settlement, primarily because of high susceptibility to infectious diseases transmitted to them from domestic livestock. It has been suggested that low variation at major histocompatibility complex (MHC) genes, the most important genetic aspect of the vertebrate immune system, may result in high susceptibility to infectious disease. Therefore, we examined genetic polymorphism at a MHC gene (Ovca-DRB) in a large sample, both numerically and geographically, of bighorn sheep. Strikingly, there were 21 different alleles that showed extensive nucleotide and amino acid sequence divergence. In other words, low MHC variation does not appear to be the basis of the high disease susceptibility and decline in bighorn sheep. On the other hand, analysis of the pattern of the MHC polymorphism suggested that nonsynonymous substitutions predominated, especially at amino acids in the antigen-binding site. The average overall heterozygosity for the 16 amino acid positions that are part of the antigen binding site is 0.389 whereas that for the 67 amino acid positions not involved with antigen binding is 0.076. These findings imply that the diversity present in this gene is functionally significant and is, or has been, maintained by balancing selection. To examine the evolution of DRB alleles in related species, a phylogenetic analysis including other published ruminant (Bovidae and Cervidae) species, was carried out. An intermixture of sequences from bighorn sheep, domestic sheep, goats, cattle, bison, and musk ox was observed supporting trans-species polymorphism for these species. To reconcile the species and gene trees for the 104 sequences examined, 95 'deep coalescent' events were necessary, illustrating the importance of balancing selection maintaining variation over speciation events.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)439-450
Number of pages12
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2001


  • Adaptive variation
  • Heterozygosity
  • Phylogenetic tree
  • Substitution rate
  • Trans-species polymorphism

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Genetics
  • Genetics(clinical)


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