Perch-like fishes of the family Cichlidae are models for the study of speciation. An important tool in these studies is the major histocompatibility complex (Mhc) and its organization. The present study takes the first step toward the elucidation of the Mhc class II gene organization in the tilapiine fish Oreochromis niloticus (Orni). Using class II A- and class II B-specific probes, Mhc-bearing clones were identified and isolated from a bacterial artificial chromosome (BAC) library. The analysis of these clones by a combination of molecular, genetic-mapping, and phylogenetic methods led to the identification of nine class II A and 15 class II B loci. Genes at these loci constitute two families, which we designate as class IIa and class IIb families. Each of the families contains A and B loci. Some genes in both families are expressed and functional. The two families differ in their chromosomal location (they are unlinked) and their mode of evolution. The class IIa family genes are conserved across different teleost taxonomical orders, whereas the class IIb family genes are apparently products of multiple, more recent, rounds of gene duplications. The rounds established at least five monophyletic groups of genes. The founding unit of each monophyletic group might have been a pair of class II A and B loci.
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