New reservoirs of HLA alleles: Pools of rare variants enhance immune defense

William Klitz, Philip Hedrick, Edward J. Louis

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

48 Scopus citations


Highly polymorphic exons of the major histocompatibility complex (MHC, or HLA in humans) encode critical amino acids that bind foreign peptides. Recognition of the peptide-MHC complexes by T cells initiates the adaptive immune response. The particular structure of these exons facilitates gene conversion(GC) events, leading to the generation of new alleles. Estimates for allele creation and loss indicate that more than 10. 000 such alleles are circulating at low frequencies in human populations. Empirical sampling has affirmed this expectation. This suggests that the MHC loci have a system for moving valuable and often complex variants into adaptive service. Here, we argue that HLA loci carry many new mutant alleles prepared to assume epidemiologically meaningful roles when called on by selection provoked by exposure to new and evolving pathogens. Because new mutant alleles appear in a population at the lowest possible frequency (i.e., a single copy), they have typically been thought of as having little consequence. However, this large population of rare yet potentially valuable new alleles may contribute to pathogen defense.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)480-486
Number of pages7
JournalTrends in Genetics
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 2012


  • Gene conversion
  • HLA
  • MHC
  • Polymorphism
  • Population growth

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Genetics


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