Pathogen resistance and genetic variation at MHC loci

Philip W. Hedrick

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

326 Scopus citations


Balancing selection in the form of heterozygote advantage, frequency-dependent selection, or selection that varies in time and/or space, has been proposed to explain the high variation at major histocompatibility complex (MHC) genes. Here the effect of variation of the presence and absence of pathogens over time on genetic variation at multiallelic loci is examined. In the basic model, resistance to each pathogen is conferred by a given allele, and this allele is assumed to be dominant. Given that s is the selective disadvantage for homozygotes (and heterozygotes) without the resistance allele and the proportion of generations, which a pathogen is present, is e, fitnesses for homozygotes become (1 - s)(n-1)e and the fitnesses for heterozygotes become (1 - s)(n-2)e, where n is the number of alleles. In this situation, the conditions for a stable, multiallelic polymorphism are met even though there is no intrinsic heterozygote advantage. The distribution of allele frequencies and consequently heterozygosity are a function of the autocorrelation of the presence of the pathogen in subsequent generations. When there is a positive autocorrelation over generations, the observed heterozygosity is reduced. In addition, the effects of lower levels of selection and dominance and the influence of genetic drift were examined. These effects were compared to the observed heterozygosity for two MHC genes in several South American Indian samples. Overall, resistance conferred by specific alleles to temporally variable pathogens may contribute to the observed polymorphism at MHC genes and other similar host defense loci.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1902-1908
Number of pages7
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 1 2002


  • Frequency-dependent selection
  • HLA loci
  • Heterozygote advantage
  • Overdominance
  • Polymorphism

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Genetics
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


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