Research Article

Conservation Genetics

, Volume 9, Issue 2, pp 257-270

First online:

Genetic variation of the major histocompatibility complex (MHC class II β gene) in the threatened Gila trout, Oncorhynchus gilae gilae

  • Maureen B. PetersAffiliated withDepartment of Biology and Museum of Southwestern Biology, University of New MexicoSavannah River Ecology Laboratory
  • , Thomas F. TurnerAffiliated withDepartment of Biology and Museum of Southwestern Biology, University of New Mexico Email author 

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Gila trout (Oncorhynchus gilae gilae) was federally protected in 1973 because of severe declines in abundance and geographic range size. At present, four relict genetic lineages of the species remain in mountain streams of New Mexico and Arizona, USA. Management actions aimed at species recovery, including hatchery production and restocking of formerly occupied streams, have been guided by information from non-functional genetic markers. In this study, we investigated genetic variation at exon 2 of the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class II β gene that is involved in pathogen resistance and thus presumably under natural selection. Phylogenetic analysis revealed trans-species polymorphism and a significantly high ratio of non-synonymous to synonymous amino acid changes consistent with the action of historical balancing selection that maintained diversity at this locus in the past. However, Gila trout exhibited low allelic diversity (five alleles from 142 individuals assayed) compared to some other salmonid fishes, and populations that originated exclusively from hatcheries possessed three or fewer MHC alleles. Comparative analysis of genetic variation at MHC and six presumably neutrally evolving microsatellite loci revealed that genetic drift cannot be rejected as a primary force governing evolution of MHC in contemporary populations of Gila trout. Maintenance of diversity at MHC will require careful implementation of hatchery breeding protocols and continued protection of wild populations to prevent loss of allelic diversity due to drift.


Microsatellites Salmonidae Genetic drift Natural selection Hatchery supplementation Adaptive immunity