Immune system study could help conserve endangered species

Sep 16, 2013 by Beth Gavrilles

(Phys.org) —A study by University of Georgia ecologists has found that diversity in mammal immune system genes may have more to do with the opportunity to choose a mate than with exposure to parasites.

Besides answering a long-standing question in evolutionary ecology, the findings, recently published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, have implications for the conservation of imperiled species.

For decades, scientists have puzzled over what causes the extreme diversity in genes of the immune system, especially for a group of genes known as the , or MHC. These genes are responsible for recognizing and fighting against the many different pathogens and parasites encountered by hosts. MHC genes can harbor enormous variation, even in that have very low diversity in the rest of the genome—particularly species that have experienced population "bottlenecks" caused by catastrophic events that reduce the size of the population and its .

According to lead author Jamie Winternitz, who received her doctorate from the UGA Odum School of Ecology earlier this year, there have been two main competing hypotheses about what causes this variation.

One is that diversity in immune genes is mainly driven by pressure from parasites—the more diversity in immune genes, the more different types of parasites the immune system can recognize and fight. Animal species that encounter many different kinds of parasites would therefore be expected to have greater immune gene diversity.

The second hypothesis is that to avoid or to choose a compatible mate drives the variation. The immune genes that detect and fight against parasites also affect traits that make animals—including humans—more or less attractive to potential mates. Studies have shown that that smell different—an indicator they have a different MHC —are more appealing, helping prevent mating between closely related individuals. Animals also might use MHC-based cues to choose partners that will provide "good genes" for their offspring.

To conduct her analysis, Winternitz used MHC genetic sequences for 112 mammal species from GenBank, a repository of genetic data maintained by the National Institutes of Health, and compiled data about those species' behavioral and physical traits from other published databases. She also drew on the Global Mammal Parasite Database compiled by Odum School researchers.

The scope of the information made it possible to compare immune gene diversity across species while exploring both hypothetical drivers of that diversity.

"What the study found, in a nutshell, is that the strength of sexual selection is a much better predictor of MHC immune gene variation than parasitism is," said study co-author Sonia Altizer, an associate professor in the Odum School.

Winternitz added that the findings were "pretty exciting and unexpected," she said. "When I started compiling the data, I had no idea if I would observe any significant associations at all."

Understanding the importance of sexual selection has practical value for those working to conserve rare and endangered species.

"One relevant situation we had in mind was for managers of conservation genetic programs that use fertilizations to maintain a species' standing genetic stock," said Winternitz. "Our results suggest that the current practice of random assignment of mates might be less than optimal for maintaining variability at functionally important immune genes and that employing some opportunity for mate choice could be more effective."

Explore further: Research shows impact of BMR on brain size in fish

More information: rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/280/1769/20131605.short

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Research shows impact of BMR on brain size in fish

Apr 24, 2015

A commonly used term to describe nutritional needs and energy expenditure in humans – basal metabolic rate – could also be used to give insight into brain size of ocean fish, according to new research by Dr Teresa Iglesias ...

Why do animals fight members of other species?

Apr 23, 2015

Why do animals fight with members of other species? A nine-year study by UCLA biologists says the reason often has to do with "obtaining priority access to females" in the area.

Dolphins use extra energy to communicate in noisy waters

Apr 23, 2015

Dolphins that raise their voices to be heard in noisy environments expend extra energy in doing so, according to new research that for the first time measures the biological costs to marine mammals of trying ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.