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Genes determine mate choice

How do we choose our mates? For quite some time now, scientists suspect that it is not for looks or fashion, neither for love or sympathy. It may be the genes that determine our preference for certain males or females.

A new study provides support for this idea by looking at lemurs in Madagaskar. Female fat-tailed dwarf lemurs (Cheirogaleus medius) live in life-long pairs, yet notoriously cheat on their partners to improve the genetic fitness of their offspring. Scientists at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin published the study in the journal Evolutionary Ecology (DOI 10.1007/s10682-007-9186-4).

The team headed by Prof. Simone Sommer looked for possible genetic benefits in the obligate pair-living fat-tailed dwarf lemur which maintains life-long pair bonds but has an extremely high rate of extra-pair paternity. Possible mechanisms of female mate choice were investigated by analyzing overall genetic variability as well as a marker of adaptive significance (major histocompatibility complex, MHC-DRB exon 2). MHC-genes determine not only the individual’s immune response but also the individual’s body odour. This holds true for animals as well as for humans.

The study indicated that females preferred males both as social and as genetic fathers for their offspring if they have a higher number of MHC-alleles and MHC-supertypes, a lower overlap with the female’s MHC-supertypes as well as a higher genome-wide heterozygosity than randomly assigned males. This means that females looked for the most genetically different males preferably with a “healthy” set of genes. Mutual relatedness had no influence on mate choice.

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Interestingly, females were most likely to cheat on their social partner if he had a higher overlap with the female’s MHC supertype. Extra-pair mates were chosen mostly for their genetic difference, thus maximising the genetic complementarity of sires to the females.

Josef Zens | alfa
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