Cichlid fishes of the East African Rift Valley lakes constitute an important model of adaptive radiation. Explosive speciation in the Great Lakes, in some cases as recently as 12,400 years ago, generated large species flocks that have been the focus of evolutionary studies for some time. The studies have, however, been hampered by the paucity of biochemical markers for phylogenetic reconstruction. Here, we describe a set of markers which should help to alleviate this problem. They are the class I genes of the major histocompatibility complex. We provide evidence for the existence of at least 17 class I loci in cichlid fishes, and for extensive polymorphism of three of these loci. Since the polymorphism has a trans-species character, it will be possible to use it in investigating the founding events of the individual species. The sequences of the cichlid class I fishes support the monophyly of actinopterygian fish on the one hand, and of tetrapods on the other.
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