High adaptive variability and virus-driven selection on major histocompatibility complex (MHC) genes in invasive wild rabbits in Australia

Nina Schwensow, Camila J. Mazzoni, Elena Marmesat, Joerns Fickel, David Peacock, John Kovaliski, Ron Sinclair, Phillip Cassey, Brian Cooke, Simone Sommer

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    The rabbit haemorrhagic disease virus (RHDV) was imported into Australia in 1995 as a biocontrol agent to manage one of the most successful and devastating invasive species, the European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus cuniculus). During the first disease outbreaks, RHDV caused mortality rates of up to 97% and reduced Australian rabbit numbers to very low levels. However, recently increased genetic resistance to RHDV and strong population growth has been reported. Major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class I immune genes are important for immune responses against viruses, and a high MHC variability is thought to be crucial in adaptive processes under pathogen-driven selection. We asked whether strong population bottlenecks and presumed genetic drift would have led to low MHC variability in wild Australian rabbits, and if the retained MHC variability was enough to explain the increased resistance against RHD. Despite the past bottlenecks we found a relatively high number of MHC class I sequences distributed over 2–4 loci. We identified positive selection on putative antigen-binding sites of the MHC. We detected evidence for RHDV-driven selection as one MHC supertype was negatively associated with RHD survival, fitting expectations of frequency-dependent selection. Gene duplication and pathogen-driven selection are possible (and likely) mechanisms that maintained the adaptive potential of MHC genes in Australian rabbits. Our findings not only contribute to a better understanding of the evolution of invasive species, they are also important in the light of planned future rabbit biocontrol in Australia.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)1255-1271
    Number of pages17
    JournalBiological Invasions
    Issue number4
    Publication statusPublished - 1 Apr 2017


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