Reflections on Ancestral Haplotypes: Medical Genomics, Evolution, and Human Individuality


The major histocompatibility complex (MHC), once labelled the “sphinx of immunology” by Jan Klein, provides powerful challenges to evolutionary thinking. This essay highlights the main discoveries that established the block ancestral haplotype structure of the MHC and the wider genome, focusing on the work by the Perth (Australia) group, led by Roger Dawkins, and the Boston group, led by Chester Alper and Edmond Yunis. Their achievements have been overlooked in the rush to sequence the first and subsequent drafts of the human genome. In Caucasoids, where most of the detailed work has been done, about 70% of all known allelic MHC diversity can be accounted for by 30 or so ancestral haplotypes (AHs), or conserved sequences of many mega-bases, and their recombinants. The block haplotype structure of the genome, as shown for the MHC (and other genetic regions), is a story that needs to be understood in its own right, particularly given the promotion of the “HapMap” project and single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) linkage disequilibrium (LD) analysis, which has been wrongly touted as the only way to pinpoint those genes that are important in genetic disorders or other desired (qualitative) characteristics.