Is the decline of desert bighorn sheep from infectious disease the result of low MHC variation?
Bighorn sheep populations have greatly declined in numbers and distribution since European settlement, primarily because of high susceptibility to infectious diseases transmitted to them from domestic livestock. It has been suggested that low variation at major histocompatibility complex (MHC) genes, the most important genetic aspect of the vertebrate immune system, may result in high susceptibility to infectious disease. Therefore, we examined genetic polymorphism at a MHC gene (Ovca-DRB) in a large sample, both numerically and geographically, of bighorn sheep. Strikingly, there were 21 different alleles that showed extensive nucleotide and amino acid sequence divergence. In other words, low MHC variation does not appear to be the basis of the high disease susceptibility and decline in bighorn sheep. On the other hand, analysis of the pattern of the MHC polymorphism suggested that nonsynonymous substitutions predominated, especially at amino acids in the antigen-binding site. The aver