Patterns of Adaptive and Neutral Diversity Identify the Xiaoxiangling Mountains as a Refuge for the Giant Panda
Genetic variation plays a significant role in maintaining the evolutionary potential of a species. Comparing the patterns of adaptive and neutral diversity in extant populations is useful for understanding the local adaptations of a species. In this study, we determined the fine-scale genetic structure of 6 extant populations of the giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) using mtDNA and DNA fingerprints, and then overlaid adaptive variations in 6 functional Aime-MHC class II genes (DRA, DRB3, DQA1, DQA2, DQB1, and DQB2) on this framework. We found that: (1) analysis of the mtDNA and DNA fingerprint-based networks of the 6 populations identified the independent evolutionary histories of the 2 panda subspecies; (2) the basal (ancestral) branches of the fingerprint-based Sichuan-derived network all originated from the smallest Xiaoxiangling (XXL) population, suggesting the status of a glacial refuge in XXL; (3) the MHC variations among the tested populations showed that the XXL population exhibited extraordinary high levels of MHC diversity in allelic richness, which is consistent with the diversity characteristics of a glacial refuge; (4) the phylogenetic tree showed that the basal clades of giant panda DQB sequences were all occupied by XXL-specific sequences, providing evidence for the ancestor-resembling traits of XXL. Finally, we found that the giant panda had many more DQ alleles than DR alleles (33∶13), contrary to other mammals, and that the XXL refuge showed special characteristics in the DQB loci, with 7 DQB members of 9 XXL-unique alleles. Thus, this study identified XXL as a glacial refuge, specifically harboring the most number of primitive DQB alleles.