Sexual selection has been proposed as one mechanism to explain the maintenance of high allelic diversity in MHC genes that control the extent of resistance against pathogens and parasites in natural populations. MHC-based sexual selection is known to involve olfactory mechanisms in fish, mice, and humans. During mate choice, females of the three-spined stickleback (Gasterosteus aculeatus) use an odor-based selection strategy to achieve an optimal level of MHC diversity in their offspring, equipping them with optimal resistance toward pathogens and parasites. The molecular mechanism of odor-based mate-selection strategies is unknown. Because peptide ligands for MHC class I molecules function as individuality signals in mice, we hypothesized that female sticklebacks might assess the degree of MHC diversity of potential partners by means of the structural diversity of the corresponding peptide ligands in perceived odor signals. We show that structurally diverse MHC ligands interact with natural odors of male sticklebacks to predictably modify MHC-related mate choice. For a mating pair with suboptimal numbers of MHC alleles, peptides increase the attractiveness of male water, whereas for a mating pair with superoptimal numbers, attractiveness is decreased. Our results suggest that female sticklebacks use evolutionarily conserved structural features of MHC peptide ligands to evaluate MHC diversity of their prospective mating partners.
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