[This author post is by Laure Ségurel [a postdoc in the Przeworski Lab] on the paper Blood ties: ABO is a trans-species polymorphism in primates, posted on the arXiv here]
The mysteries of the ABO blood group were first brought to our attention by Carole Ober. When we started working on it, we were mostly surprised by how little was known about the function of such a heavily studied gene and such an important clinical phenotype. Indeed, the expression of A, B and/or O antigens at the surface of some cells is a polymorphic phenotype shared by species as diverse as macaques and baboons in Africa, gibbons in Asia, squirrel monkeys in the Americas and, of course, humans throughout most of the world yet, many questions remain unanswered, such as: What is the biological role of ABO in different cell types? Why did Hominoids evolve toward its expression of blood cells whereas other primates express it only on epithelial/endothelial cells? Why is the O allele at such high frequency only in humans? What are the selective agents responsible for the maintenance of this polymorphism? And why did chimpanzees and bonobos apparently loose the polymorphism?
One question that we became interested in answering with population genetic tools was that of the origin of such blood types. When did the genetic polymorphism first emerge and which species share it identical by descent (as opposed to by convergent evolution)? Answers to these questions could tell us where and when having multiple alleles at this locus became advantageous. We therefore sequenced as many Hominoids, Old World monkeys and New World monkeys we could get our hands on, and, even more interestingly, we started thinking about the expectations under a model of convergent evolution, i.e., one where the AB genetic polymorphism was created independently multiple times in different species (and then maintained by balancing selection in these lineages) versus under a model of trans-species polymorphism, i.e., in which the AB genetic polymorphism arose early in time and was transmitted identical by descent to distinct species. Key to distinguishing the two predictions is the age of different selected alleles within a polymorphic population.
We therefore compared alleles within humans, orangutans, gibbons, macaques, baboons and colobus monkeys (all polymorphic species for the A and B alleles), and showed that, at least among Hominoids and among Old World monkeys, the observed genetic pattern is not compatible with a model of convergent evolution but on the contrary matches the expectations under a model of a trans-species polymorphism maintained by multi-allelic balancing selection. In other words, the data indicate that the AB polymorphism was present at least around 20 Millions of years ago, if not earlier. Also, interestingly, it seems that the A, B and O functional classes do not provide a complete description of the allelic classes natural selection is acting on, which underscores the need for more detailed functional studies of ABO sub-groups.
By submitting the paper to arXiv, we hope to circulate it to a diverse audience and without delay. In particular, we hope that the study will motivate more experimental/functional work about the role of this polymorphism in immune response, e.g., to pathogen infections.