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Changing the direction of my research toward evolutionary biology


Scepticism regarding trans-species polymorphism
Jan Klein Scientist
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At the same time we also did a similar study and that was Werner Mayer who did the study in collaboration with people in Amsterdam on human... on the HLA system, and again it turned out to be the same situation that some of the human... the HLA alleles were more related to chimpanzee alleles... chimpanzee and humans diverged about six million years ago, than they were to other HLA alleles and the same for the chimpanzee. There were... some of them were more related to human alleles than the chimpanzee alleles. So, a clear case.

A little bit later several other groups reported similar findings, so it was turning out that the trans-species hypothesis that I formulated in 1980 was being supported by all the evidence that was coming from different directions, originally from serology than from biochemical analysis and later from genetic analysis. People still didn't like it. I remember... yes, it's very funny today, but at that time I remember when I presented this to... at the meeting... where was it? New Orleans, I think. It was a meeting of the HLA Society basically and then I presented there, and then it was just before the presentation just before the break and it was just, when I finished, it was just like a group of wasps was attacking me. The discussion was suddenly... everybody wanted to know this and this and all kinds of objections. This cannot be true. Well, some of the people who were very, very sceptical at that time later published papers where they got the same... basically the same result.

It's not that we were claiming that every polymorphic difference that one finds between alleles in different species or in the species must be of origin before the speciation, but certainly a good proportion was, and this had several important implications in several areas... for myself and for areas of research of other people, and it led to some of the studies that I will mention shortly, but, for me it was a demonstration that the MHC genes are not special in the sense that they are evolving very fast, as many people were assuming, and perhaps some even assume to this day, but that what was special was that the alleles remained... that the polymorphism remained within the population, regardless of speciation, even if they underwent splitting into new species. The polymorphism was transferred from the original ancestral species into the new species and that to me had very important implications on the nature of polymorphism, and these are the areas that I would like to now discuss.  But before I do I should say I would like to say something about the Max Planck Society before... which I became a member of one of its institute in 1978, because it had an important effect on my research that then followed.

Born in 1936, Jan Klein is a Czech-American immunologist who co-founded the modern science of immunogenetics – key to understanding illness and disease. He is the author or co-author of over 560 scientific publications and of seven books including 'Where Do We Come From?' which examines the molecular evolution of humans. He graduated from the Charles University at Prague in 1955, and received his MS in Botany from the same school in 1958. From 1977 to his retirement in 2004, he was the Director of the Max Planck Institute for Biology at Tübingen, Germany.

Listeners: Colm O'hUigin

Colm O'hUigin is a senior staff scientist at the US National Cancer Institute. He received his BA, MSc and PhD at the Genetics Department of Trinity College, Dublin where he later returned as a lecturer. He has held appointments at the Center for Population and Demographic Genetics, UT Houston, and at the University of Cambridge. As an EMBO fellow, he moved in 1990 to the Max Planck Institute for Biology in Tübingen, Germany to work with Jan Klein and lead a research group studying the evolutionary origins of immune molecules, of teeth, trypanosomes and of species.

Tags: HLA, polymorphism, allele, Max Planck Society, Werner Eugen Mayer

Duration: 5 minutes, 5 seconds

Date story recorded: August 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008