Our understanding of the evolution of genes of the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) is rapidly increasing, but there are still enigmatic questions remaining, particularly regarding the maintenance of high levels of MHC polymorphisms in small, isolated populations. Here, we analyze the genetic variation at eight microsatellite loci and sequence variation at exon 2 of the MHC class IIB (DAB) genes in two wild populations of the Trinidadian guppy, Poecilia reticulata. We compare the genetic variation of a small (Ne ≈ 100) and relatively isolated upland population to that of its much larger (Ne ≈ 2400) downstream counterpart. As predicted, microsatellite diversity in the upland population is significantly lower and highly differentiated from the population further downstream. Surprisingly, however, these guppy populations are not differentiated by MHC genetic variation and show very similar levels of allelic richness. Computer simulations indicate that the observed level of genetic variation can be maintained with overdominant selection acting at three DAB loci. The selection coefficients differ dramatically between the upland (s ≥ 0.2) and lowland (s ≤ 0.01) populations. Parasitological analysis on wild-caught fish shows that parasite load is significantly higher on upland than on lowland fish, which suggests that large differences in selection intensity may indeed exist between populations. Based on the infection intensity, a substantial proportion of the upland fish would have suffered direct or indirect fitness consequences as a result of their high parasite loads. Selection by parasites plays a particularly important role in the evolution of guppies in the upland habitat, which has resulted in high levels of MHC diversity being maintained in this population despite considerable genetic drift.
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Vol. 60 • No. 12