Self and Nonself

Volume 738 of the series Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology pp 290-313

MHC Signaling during Social Communication

  • James S. RuffAffiliated withDepartment of Biology, University of Utah Email author 
  • , Adam C. NelsonAffiliated withDepartment of Biology, University of Utah
  • , Jason L. KubinakAffiliated withDepartment of Biology, University of Utah
  • , Wayne K. PottsAffiliated withDepartment of Biology, University of Utah

* Final gross prices may vary according to local VAT.

Get Access


The major histocompatibility complex (MHC) has been known to play a critical role in immune recognition since the 1950s. It was a surprise, then, in the 1970s when the first report appeared indicating MHC might also function in social signaling. Since this seminal discovery, MHC signaling has been found throughout vertebrates and its known functions have expanded beyond mate choice to include a suite of behaviors from kin-biased cooperation, parent-progeny recognition to pregnancy block. The widespread occurrence of MHC in social signaling has revealed conserved behavioral-genetic mechanisms that span vertebrates and includes humans. The identity of the signal’s chemical constituents and the receptors responsible for the perception of the signal have remained elusive, but recent advances have enabled the identification of the key components of the behavioral circuit. In this chapter we organize recent findings from the literature and discuss them in relation to four nonmutually exclusive models wherein MHC functions as a signal of (i) individuality, (ii) relatedness, (iii) genetic compatibility and (iv) quality. We also synthesize current mechanistic studies, showing how knowledge about the molecular basis of MHC signaling can lead to elegant and informative experimental manipulations. Finally, we discuss current evidence relating to the primordial functions of the MHC, including the possibility that its role in social signaling may be ancestral to its central role in adaptive immunity.