The Icelandic horse has been maintained as a closed population in its eponymous homeland for many generations, with no recorded introductions of new horses of any breed since the year 1000 CE. Here we determined the diversity of major histocompatibility complex (MHC) haplotypes in 156 Icelandic horses from two groups, based on a panel of 12 polymorphic intra-MHC microsatellites tested in families of various composition. We identified a total of 79 MHC haplotypes in these two groups, including one documented intra-MHC recombination event from a total of 147 observed meioses. None of these MHC haplotypes have been previously described in any other horse breed. Only one MHC homozygote was found in the entire population studied. These results indicate a very high level of MHC heterozygosity and haplotype diversity in the Icelandic horse. The environment in Iceland is remarkable for its lack of common agents of equine infectious disease, including equine herpesvirus type 1, influenza virus, and streptococcus equi. The driving forces for maintenance of MHC heterozygosity in Icelandic horses must thus be sought outside of these major horse pathogens. Based on our results, we propose that intra-MHC recombination may play a major role in the generation of novel haplotypes.
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We thank Alison Keggan and Becky Harman for their expert technical assistance. This study was supported in part by a grant from the Harry M. Zweig Memorial Fund for Equine Research in New York state. DFA is an investigator of the Dorothy Russell Havemeyer Foundation, Inc.
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Holmes, C.M., Violette, N., Miller, D. et al. MHC haplotype diversity in Icelandic horses determined by polymorphic microsatellites. Genes Immun 20, 660–670 (2019) doi:10.1038/s41435-019-0075-y