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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

The impact of sex-role reversal on the diversity of the major histocompatibility complex: Insights from the seahorse (Hippocampus abdominalis)

Angela Bahr and Anthony B Wilson*

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Institute of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies, University of Zurich, Winterthurerstrasse 190, 8057 Zurich, Switzerland

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2011, 11:121  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-11-121

Published: 10 May 2011



Both natural and sexual selection are thought to influence genetic diversity, but the study of the relative importance of these two factors on ecologically-relevant traits has traditionally focused on species with conventional sex-roles, with male-male competition and female-based mate choice. With its high variability and significance in both immune function and olfactory-mediated mate choice, the major histocompatibility complex (MHC/MH) is an ideal system in which to evaluate the relative contributions of these two selective forces to genetic diversity. Intrasexual competition and mate choice are both reversed in sex-role reversed species, and sex-related differences in the detection and use of MH-odor cues are expected to influence the intensity of sexual selection in such species. The seahorse, Hippocampus abdominalis, has an exceptionally highly developed form of male parental care, with female-female competition and male mate choice.


Here, we demonstrate that the sex-role reversed seahorse has a single MH class II beta-chain gene and that the diversity of the seahorse MHIIβ locus and its pattern of variation are comparable to those detected in species with conventional sex roles. Despite the presence of only a single gene copy, intralocus MHIIβ allelic diversity in this species exceeds that observed in species with multiple copies of this locus. The MHIIβ locus of the seahorse exhibits a novel expression domain in the male brood pouch.


The high variation found at the seahorse MHIIβ gene indicates that sex-role reversed species are capable of maintaining the high MHC diversity typical in most vertebrates.

Whether such species have evolved the capacity to use MH-odor cues during mate choice is presently being investigated using mate choice experiments. If this possibility can be rejected, such systems would offer an exceptional opportunity to study the effects of natural selection in isolation, providing powerful comparative models for understanding the relative importance of selective factors in shaping patterns of genetic variation.