Plasmodium in mosquito midgut
Malaria parasites in mosquito midgut

Why is it so hard to come up with a disproof (or a proof) of overdominant selection in MHC?

I’m starting kind of in mid-sentence here, because this is a continuation of a series of posts on MHC diversity. Briefly: The major histocompatibility complex region in vertebrates is extraordinarily diverse — a hundred times more variable (more alleles) than the average genomic chunk. Even populations that are otherwise inbred and lack diversity throughout their genome, rapidly evolve, or maintain, MHC diversity. There is clearly powerful evolutionary selection for this diversity, and there are several different explanations as to what this driver might be. The two most plausible explanations are frequency-dependent selection (in which rare alleles are selected simply because they are rare, and pathogens haven’t adapted to them) and overdominance, or heterozygote advantage (where individuals with diverse MHC regions, containing many alleles, are selected because they are more resistant to pathogens).

Overdominance was (as far as I know) the first mechanism put forward to explain MHC diversity. 1 The concept is a simple one: If one MHC allele protects against disease by binding a certain set of peptides, then two alleles should protect against more diseases by cumulatively binding a larger set of peptides. A heterozygous individual should be more resistant to pathogens than individuals that are homozygous for either single allele.

This simple concept, though, turns out to be very difficult to test rigorously. Most importantly, several of the different predictions between overdominance and frequency-dependent selection depend on how the population evolves, over time; but when trying to test predictions, we are usually looking, more or less, at a static snapshot of evolution. In the static state, it’s much harder to differentiate between the two possibilities: Is the allele diversity we see a stable diversity (consistent with overdominance) or is it a dynamic diversity, with different alleles gaining and losing advantage as they become more or less frequent (consistent with frequency-dependent selection)?

True overdominance is explicitly not dependent on allele frequency. 2 There are conditions (that are not true overdominance) in which heterozygotes will have a selective advantage over homozygotes, where the advantage is strictly dependent on allele frequency. Therefore … 3

overrepresentation of HLA heterozygotes among individuals with favorable disease outcomes (which we term population heterozygote advantage) need not indicate allele-specific overdominance. On the contrary, partly due to a form of confounding by allele frequencies, population heterozygote advantage can occur under a very wide range of assumptions about the relationship between homozygote risk and heterozygote risk. In certain extreme cases, population heterozygote advantage can occur even when every heterozygote is at greater risk of being a case than either corresponding homozygote.

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchThere are a fair number of studies on more or less wild populations that have claimed to show evidence for overdominance, but few (if any) deal with the frequency problem. For that reason, most of the claims in the literature are at best consistent with overdominance, but are not proof of it.

A second complication is that individuals heterozygous at the MHC are quite likely to be heterozygous generally. How can specific effects of MHC heterozygosity be distinguished from a general heterozygote advantage? Again, this makes studies on wild populations hard to interpret cleanly.

There’s a third complication: Overdominance is most likely to be a factor in infections with more than one pathogen. 4

MHC-mediated resistance to a single pathogen is inherited as a dominant trait. This means that there will be no differences in susceptibility between a homozygote MHC allele or haplotype and a heterozygote carrying the focal allele plus a different one. Therefore, heterozygote advantage is difficult to detect in single pathogen challenges.

An exception to this might be when there’s technically a single pathogen, but it’s highly antigenically diverse — the obvious example being HIV, which mutates rapidly and regularly throws out antigenic variants during the course of infection. It’s interesting, then, that HIV infection is one of the situations where heterozygote advantage has been observed, 5 though I don’t think population allele frequency was taken into account in these studies. On the other hand, malaria is antigenically diverse as well, but experiments have not shown overdominance in that case.6

So we’re left with the difficult situation where you need to have fairly large numbers and multiple generations, in order to detect selection; yet you probably can’t use most natural populations to strictly the test the theory. Setting up a large and relatively diverse, yet well-controlled, lab animal population, and then infecting with multiple pathogens; or following a reasonably well-controlled field population; is a daunting task.

In the next post in this series I’ll mention a few cases where this has been done.


  1. Doherty, P. C., and Zinkernagel, R. M. (1975). A biological role for the major histocompatibility antigens. Lancet 1, 1406-1409.[]
  2. At least, that’s how I understand it; and I repeat that I’m not an expert. Anyone knowledgeable about this, feel free to jump in.[]
  3. Lipsitch, M., C. T. Bergstrom, and R. Antia. 2003. Effect of human leukocyte antigen heterozygosity on infectious disease outcome: the need for allele-specific measures. BMC Med Genet 4: 2. []
  4. Wegner, K. M., M. Kalbe, H. Schaschl, and T. B. Reusch. 2004. Parasites and individual major histocompatibility complex diversity–an optimal choice? Microbes Infect 6: 1110-1116. []
  5. For example, Carrington, M., G. W. Nelson, M. P. Martin, T. Kissner, D. Vlahov, J. J. Goedert, R. Kaslow, S. Buchbinder, K. Hoots, and S. J. O’Brien. 1999. HLA and HIV-1: heterozygote advantage and B*35-Cw*04 disadvantage. Science 283: 1748-1752. []
  6. Wedekind, C., Walker, M., and Little, T. J. (2005). The course of malaria in mice: major histocompatibility complex (MHC) effects, but no general MHC heterozygote advantage in single-strain infections. Genetics 170, 1427-1430.[]