A remarkable characteristic of the human major histocompatibility complex (MHC) is its extreme genetic diversity, which is maintained by balancing selection. In fact, the MHC complex remains one of the best-known examples of natural selection in humans, with well-established genetic signatures and biological mechanisms for the action of selection. Here, we present genetic and functional evidence that another gene with a fundamental role in MHC class I presentation, endoplasmic reticulum aminopeptidase 2 (ERAP2), has also evolved under balancing selection and contains a variant that affects antigen presentation. Specifically, genetic analyses of six human populations revealed strong and consistent signatures of balancing selection affecting ERAP2. This selection maintains two highly differentiated haplotypes (Haplotype A and Haplotype B), with frequencies 0.44 and 0.56, respectively. We found that ERAP2 expressed from Haplotype B undergoes differential splicing and encodes a truncated protein, leading to nonsense-mediated decay of the mRNA. To investigate the consequences of ERAP2 deficiency on MHC presentation, we correlated surface MHC class I expression with ERAP2 genotypes in primary lymphocytes. Haplotype B homozygotes had lower levels of MHC class I expressed on the surface of B cells, suggesting that naturally occurring ERAP2 deficiency affects MHC presentation and immune response. Interestingly, an ERAP2 paralog, endoplasmic reticulum aminopeptidase 1 (ERAP1), also shows genetic signatures of balancing selection. Together, our findings link the genetic signatures of selection with an effect on splicing and a cellular phenotype. Although the precise selective pressure that maintains polymorphism is unknown, the demonstrated differences between the ERAP2 splice forms provide important insights into the potential mechanism for the action of selection.
It has long been known that the extremely high levels of genetic diversity present in the major histocompatibility locus (MHC) are due to balancing selection, a type of natural selection that maintains advantageous genetic diversity in populations. The MHC encodes for molecules required for a type of antigen presentation that mediates detection of infected and cancerous cells by the immune system; the genetic diversity of the MHC thus ensures an adequate response to the wide variety of pathogens that humans encounter. Here, we show that other genes involved in the same antigen-presentation pathway are also subject to balancing selection in humans. Specifically, we show that balancing selection acts to maintain two forms of the endoplasmic reticulum aminopeptidase 2 gene (ERAP2), which encodes a protein also involved in antigen presentation. Although the two ERAP2 forms are present in a similar frequency (close to 0.5), they are associated with differences with respect to the levels of MHC molecules on the cell surface of immune cells. In summary, our findings show that natural selection maintains variants of ERAP2 that affect immune surveillance; they also establish ERAP2 as one of the few examples of balancing selection in humans where the selected variant, its functional consequences, and its influence in interpersonal diversity are known.