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Population genetics

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Title: Population genetics  
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Subject: Evolutionary biology, Genetic drift, Genetics, History of genetics, Ronald Fisher
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Population genetics

Population genetics is the study of the distribution and change in frequency of alleles within populations, and as such it sits firmly within the field of evolutionary biology. The main processes of evolution (natural selection, genetic drift, gene flow, mutation, and genetic recombination) form an integral part of the theory that underpins population genetics. Studies in this branch of biology examine such phenomena as adaptation, speciation, population subdivision, and population structure.

Population genetics was a vital ingredient in the emergence of the modern evolutionary synthesis. Its primary founders were Sewall Wright, J. B. S. Haldane and Ronald Fisher, who also laid the foundations for the related discipline of quantitative genetics.

Traditionally a highly mathematical discipline, modern population genetics encompasses theoretical, lab and field work. Computational approaches, often utilising coalescent theory, have played a central role since the 1980s.


  • History 1
    • Modern evolutionary synthesis 1.1
    • Selection vs. genetic drift 1.2
  • Fundamentals 2
  • Four processes 3
    • Selection 3.1
      • Hardy–Weinberg principle 3.1.1
    • Genetic drift 3.2
    • Mutation 3.3
      • Evolution of mutation rate 3.3.1
    • Gene flow and transfer 3.4
      • Reproductive isolation 3.4.1
      • Genetic structure 3.4.2
      • Horizontal Gene Transfer 3.4.3
  • Complications 4
    • Epistasis 4.1
    • Linkage 4.2
  • See also 5
  • Notes and references 6
  • Bibliography 7
  • External links 8


Ronald Fisher

Population genetics began as a reconciliation of Mendelian inheritance and biostatistics models. A key step was the work of the British biologist and statistician Ronald Fisher. In a series of papers starting in 1918 and culminating in his 1930 book The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection, Fisher showed that the continuous variation measured by the biometricians could be produced by the combined action of many discrete genes, and that natural selection could change allele frequencies in a population, resulting in evolution. In a series of papers beginning in 1924, another British geneticist, J.B.S. Haldane worked out the mathematics of allele frequency change at a single gene locus under a broad range of conditions. Haldane also applied statistical analysis to real-world examples of natural selection, such as the Peppered moth evolution and industrial melanism, and showed that selection coefficients could be larger than Fisher assumed, leading to more rapid adaptive evolution.[1][2]

The American biologist Sewall Wright, who had a background in animal breeding experiments, focused on combinations of interacting genes, and the effects of inbreeding on small, relatively isolated populations that exhibited genetic drift. In 1932, Wright introduced the concept of an adaptive landscape and argued that genetic drift and inbreeding could drive a small, isolated sub-population away from an adaptive peak, allowing natural selection to drive it towards different adaptive peaks.

The work of Fisher, Haldane and Wright founded the discipline of population genetics. This integrated natural selection with Mendelian genetics, which was the critical first step in developing a unified theory of how evolution worked.[1][2] Richard Lewontin and Japanese Motoo Kimura were heavily influenced by Wright.

Modern evolutionary synthesis

The mathematics of population genetics were originally developed as the beginning of the modern evolutionary synthesis. According to Beatty (1986), population genetics defines the core of the modern synthesis. In the first few decades of the 20th century, most field naturalists continued to believe that Lamarckian and orthogenic mechanisms of evolution provided the best explanation for the complexity they observed in the living world. However, as the field of genetics continued to develop, those views became less tenable.[3] During the modern evolutionary synthesis, these ideas were purged, and only evolutionary causes that could be expressed in the mathematical framework of population genetics were retained.[4] Consensus was reached as to which evolutionary factors might influence evolution, but not as to the relative importance of the various factors.[4]

Russian geneticists such as Sergei Chetverikov. He helped to bridge the divide between the foundations of microevolution developed by the population geneticists and the patterns of macroevolution observed by field biologists, with his 1937 book Genetics and the Origin of Species. Dobzhansky examined the genetic diversity of wild populations and showed that, contrary to the assumptions of the population geneticists, these populations had large amounts of genetic diversity, with marked differences between sub-populations. The book also took the highly mathematical work of the population geneticists and put it into a more accessible form. Many more biologists were influenced by population genetics via Dobzhansky than were able to read the highly mathematical works in the original.[5]

Selection vs. genetic drift

E B Ford

Fisher and Wright had some fundamental disagreements about the relative roles of selection and drift[6] continued between the Americans and the British.

In Great Britain E.B. Ford, the pioneer of ecological genetics, continued throughout the 1930s and 1940s to demonstrate the power of selection due to ecological factors including the ability to maintain genetic diversity through genetic polymorphisms such as human blood types. Ford's work, in collaboration with Fisher, contributed to a shift in emphasis during the course of the modern synthesis towards natural selection over genetic drift.[1][2][7][8]

Recent studies of eukaryotic transposable elements, and of their impact on speciation, point again to a major role of nonadaptive processes such as mutation and genetic drift.[9] Mutation and genetic drift are also viewed as major factors in the evolution of genome complexity[10]


Biston betularia f. typica is the white-bodied form of the peppered moth.
Biston betularia f. carbonaria is the black-bodied form of the peppered moth.

Population genetics is the study of the frequency and interaction of alleles and genes in populations.[11] A breed freely together. This implies that all members belong to the same species and are located near each other.[12]

For example, all of the moths of the same species living in an isolated forest are a population. A gene in this population may have several alternate forms, which account for variations between the alleles: black and white. A gene pool is the complete set of alleles for a gene in a single population; the allele frequency for an allele is the fraction of the genes in the pool that is composed of that allele (for example, what fraction of moth coloration genes are the black allele). Evolution occurs when there are changes in the frequencies of alleles within a population; for example, the allele for black color in a population of moths becoming more common.

Hardy–Weinberg genotype frequencies for two alleles: the horizontal axis shows the two allele frequencies p and q and the vertical axis shows the genotype frequencies. Each curve shows one of the three possible genotypes.
Part of a series on
Genetic genealogy
Related topics

Four processes


genetically heritable basis of any phenotype which gives a reproductive advantage will become more common in a population (see allele frequency). In this way, natural selection converts differences in fitness into changes in allele frequency in a population over successive generations.

Before the advent of population genetics, many biologists doubted that small differences in fitness were sufficient to make a large difference to evolution.[5] Population geneticists addressed this concern in part by comparing selection to genetic drift. Selection can overcome genetic drift when s is greater than 1 divided by the effective population size. When this criterion is met, the probability that a new advantageous mutant becomes fixed is approximately equal to 2s.[13][14] The time until fixation of such an allele depends little on genetic drift, and is approximately proportional to log(sN)/s.[15]

Hardy–Weinberg principle

Natural selection will only cause evolution if there is enough genetic variation in a population. Before the discovery of Mendelian genetics, one common hypothesis was blending inheritance. But with blending inheritance, genetic variance would be rapidly lost, making evolution by natural or sexual selection implausible. The Hardy–Weinberg principle provides the solution to how variation is maintained in a population with Mendelian inheritance. According to this principle, the frequencies of alleles (variations in a gene) will remain constant in the absence of selection, mutation, migration and genetic drift.[16] The Hardy–Weinberg "equilibrium" refers to this stability of allele frequencies over time.

A second component of the Hardy–Weinberg principle concerns the effects of a single generation of random mating. In this case, the genotype frequencies can be predicted from the allele frequencies. For example, in the simplest case of a single locus with two alleles: the dominant allele is denoted A and the recessive a and their frequencies are denoted by p and q; freq(A) = p; freq(a) = q; p + q = 1. If the genotype frequencies are in Hardy–Weinberg proportions resulting from random mating, then we will have freq(AA) = p2 for the AA homozygotes in the population, freq(aa) = q2 for the aa homozygotes, and freq(Aa) = 2pq for the heterozygotes.

Genetic drift

Genetic drift is a change in allele frequencies caused by random sampling.[17] That is, the alleles in the offspring are a random sample of those in the parents.[18] Genetic drift may cause gene variants to disappear completely, and thereby reduce genetic variability. In contrast to natural selection, which makes gene variants more common or less common depending on their reproductive success,[19] the changes due to genetic drift are not driven by environmental or adaptive pressures, and may be beneficial, neutral, or detrimental to reproductive success.

The effect of genetic drift is larger for alleles present in few copies than when an allele is present in many copies. Scientists wage vigorous debates over the relative importance of genetic drift compared with natural selection. Ronald Fisher held the view that genetic drift plays at the most a minor role in evolution, and this remained the dominant view for several decades. In 1968 Motoo Kimura rekindled the debate with his neutral theory of molecular evolution which claims that most of the changes in the genetic material are caused by neutral mutations and genetic drift.[20] The role of genetic drift by means of sampling error in evolution has been criticized by John H Gillespie[21] and Will Provine,[22] who argue that selection on linked sites is a more important stochastic force.

The population genetics of genetic drift are described using either branching processes or a diffusion equation describing changes in allele frequency.[23] These approaches are usually applied to the Wright-Fisher and Moran models of population genetics. Assuming genetic drift is the only evolutionary force acting on an allele, after t generations in many replicated populations, starting with allele frequencies of p and q, the variance in allele frequency across those populations is

V_t \approx pq\left(1-\exp\left\{-\frac{t}{2N_e} \right\}\right). [24]


Drosophila melanogaster

Mutation is the ultimate source of genetic variation in the form of new alleles. Mutation can result in several different types of change in DNA sequences; these can either have no effect, alter the product of a gene, or prevent the gene from functioning. Studies in the fly Drosophila melanogaster suggest that if a mutation changes a protein produced by a gene, this will probably be harmful, with about 70 percent of these mutations having damaging effects, and the remainder being either neutral or weakly beneficial.[25]

Mutations can involve large sections of DNA becoming duplicated, usually through genetic recombination.[26] These duplications are a major source of raw material for evolving new genes, with tens to hundreds of genes duplicated in animal genomes every million years.[27] Most genes belong to larger families of genes of shared ancestry.[28] Novel genes are produced by several methods, commonly through the duplication and mutation of an ancestral gene, or by recombining parts of different genes to form new combinations with new functions.[29][30] Here, domains act as modules, each with a particular and independent function, that can be mixed together to produce genes encoding new proteins with novel properties.[31] For example, the human eye uses four genes to make structures that sense light: three for color vision and one for night vision; all four arose from a single ancestral gene.[32] Another advantage of duplicating a gene (or even an entire genome) is that this increases redundancy; this allows one gene in the pair to acquire a new function while the other copy performs the original function.[33][34] Other types of mutation occasionally create new genes from previously noncoding DNA.[35][36]

In addition to being a major source of variation, mutation may also function as a mechanism of evolution when there are different probabilities at the molecular level for different mutations to occur, a process known as mutation bias.[37] If two genotypes, for example one with the nucleotide G and another with the nucleotide A in the same position, have the same fitness, but mutation from G to A happens more often than mutation from A to G, then genotypes with A will tend to evolve.[38] Different insertion vs. deletion mutation biases in different taxa can lead to the evolution of different genome sizes.[39][40] Developmental or mutational biases have also been observed in morphological evolution.[41][42] For example, according to the phenotype-first theory of evolution, mutations can eventually cause the genetic assimilation of traits that were previously induced by the environment.[43][44]

Mutation bias effects are superimposed on other processes. If selection would favor either one out of two mutations, but there is no extra advantage to having both, then the mutation that occurs the most frequently is the one that is most likely to become fixed in a population.[45][46] Mutations leading to the loss of function of a gene are much more common than mutations that produce a new, fully functional gene. Most loss of function mutations are selected against. But when selection is weak, mutation bias towards loss of function can affect evolution.[47] For example, pigments are no longer useful when animals live in the darkness of caves, and tend to be lost.[48] This kind of loss of function can occur because of mutation bias, and/or because the function had a cost, and once the benefit of the function disappeared, natural selection leads to the loss. Loss of sporulation ability in a bacterium during laboratory evolution appears to have been caused by mutation bias, rather than natural selection against the cost of maintaining sporulation ability.[49] When there is no selection for loss of function, the speed at which loss evolves depends more on the mutation rate than it does on the effective population size,[50] indicating that it is driven more by mutation bias than by genetic drift.

Evolution of mutation rate

Due to the damaging effects that mutations can have on cells, organisms have evolved mechanisms such as DNA repair to remove mutations.[51] Therefore, the optimal mutation rate for a species is a trade-off between costs of a high mutation rate, such as deleterious mutations, and the metabolic costs of maintaining systems to reduce the mutation rate, such as DNA repair enzymes.[52] Viruses that use RNA as their genetic material have rapid mutation rates,[53] which can be an advantage since these viruses will evolve constantly and rapidly, and thus evade the defensive responses of e.g. the human immune system.[54]

Gene flow and transfer

Gene flow is the transfer of alleles from one population to another population through immigration of individuals. In this example, one of the birds from population A immigrates to population B, which has fewer of the dominant alleles, and through mating incorporates its alleles into the other population.
Gray tree frog

horizontal gene transfer.

Migration into or out of a population can change allele frequencies, as well as introducing genetic variation into a population. Immigration may add new genetic material to the established gene pool of a population. Conversely, emigration may remove genetic material. Population genetic models can be used to reconstruct the history of gene flow between populations.[56]

Reproductive isolation

The Great Wall in 1907

As barriers to reproduction between two diverging populations are required for the populations to become new species, gene flow may slow this process by spreading genetic differences between the populations. Gene flow is hindered by mountain ranges, oceans and deserts or even man-made structures such as the Great Wall of China, which has hindered the flow of plant genes.[57]

Depending on how far two species have diverged since their most recent common ancestor, it may still be possible for them to produce offspring, as with horses and donkeys mating to produce mules.[58] Such hybrids are generally infertile, due to the two different sets of chromosomes being unable to pair up during meiosis. In this case, closely related species may regularly interbreed, but hybrids will be selected against and the species will remain distinct. However, viable hybrids are occasionally formed and these new species can either have properties intermediate between their parent species, or possess a totally new phenotype.[59] The importance of hybridization in creating new species of animals is unclear, although cases have been seen in many types of animals,[60] with the gray tree frog being a particularly well-studied example.[61]

Hybridization is, however, an important means of speciation in plants, since polyploidy (having more than two copies of each chromosome) is tolerated in plants more readily than in animals.[62][63] Polyploidy is important in hybrids as it allows reproduction, with the two different sets of chromosomes each being able to pair with an identical partner during meiosis.[64] Polyploids also have more genetic diversity, which allows them to avoid inbreeding depression in small populations.[65]

Genetic structure

Because of physical barriers to migration, along with limited tendency for individuals to move or spread (vagility), and tendency to remain or come back to natal place (philopatry), natural populations rarely all interbreed as convenient in theoretical random models (panmixy) (Buston et al., 2007). There is usually a geographic range within which individuals are more closely related to one another than those randomly selected from the general population. This is described as the extent to which a population is genetically structured (Repaci et al., 2007). Genetic structuring can be caused by migration due to historical climate change, species range expansion or current availability of habitat.

Horizontal Gene Transfer

Current tree of life showing vertical and horizontal gene transfers.

Horizontal gene transfer is the transfer of genetic material from one organism to another organism that is not its offspring; this is most common among biological domains.[71] Large-scale gene transfer has also occurred between the ancestors of eukaryotic cells and prokaryotes, during the acquisition of chloroplasts and mitochondria.[72]


Basic models of population genetics consider only one gene locus at a time. In practice, epistatic and linkage relationships between loci may also be important.


Because of epistasis, the phenotypic effect of an allele at one locus may depend on which alleles are present at many other loci. Selection does not act on a single locus, but on a phenotype that arises through development from a complete genotype.

According to Lewontin (1974), the theoretical task for population genetics is a process in two spaces: a "genotypic space" and a "phenotypic space". The challenge of a complete theory of population genetics is to provide a set of laws that predictably map a population of genotypes (G1) to a phenotype space (P1), where selection takes place, and another set of laws that map the resulting population (P2) back to genotype space (G2) where Mendelian genetics can predict the next generation of genotypes, thus completing the cycle. Even leaving aside for the moment the non-Mendelian aspects of molecular genetics, this is clearly a gargantuan task. Visualizing this transformation schematically:

G_1 \; \stackrel{T_1}{\rightarrow} \; P_1 \; \stackrel{T_2}{\rightarrow} \; P_2 \; \stackrel{T_3}{\rightarrow} \; G_2 \; \stackrel{T_4}{\rightarrow} \; G_1' \; \rightarrow \cdots

(adapted from Lewontin 1974, p. 12). XD

T1 represents the genetic and epigenetic laws, the aspects of functional biology, or development, that transform a genotype into phenotype. We will refer to this as the "genotype-phenotype map". T2 is the transformation due to natural selection, T3 are epigenetic relations that predict genotypes based on the selected phenotypes and finally T4 the rules of Mendelian genetics.

In practice, there are two bodies of evolutionary theory that exist in parallel, traditional population genetics operating in the genotype space and the biometric theory used in plant and animal breeding, operating in phenotype space. The missing part is the mapping between the genotype and phenotype space. This leads to a "sleight of hand" (as Lewontin terms it) whereby variables in the equations of one domain, are considered parameters or constants, where, in a full-treatment they would be transformed themselves by the evolutionary process and are in reality functions of the state variables in the other domain. The "sleight of hand" is assuming that we know this mapping. Proceeding as if we do understand it is enough to analyze many cases of interest. For example, if the phenotype is almost one-to-one with genotype (sickle-cell disease) or the time-scale is sufficiently short, the "constants" can be treated as such; however, there are many situations where it is inaccurate.


If all genes are in linkage equilibrium, the effect of an allele at one locus can be averaged across the gene pool at other loci. In reality, one allele is frequently found in linkage disequilibrium with genes at other loci, especially with genes located nearby on the same chromosome. Recombination breaks up this linkage disequilibrium too slowly to avoid genetic hitchhiking, where an allele at one locus rises to high frequency because it is linked to an allele under selection at a nearby locus. This is a problem for population genetic models that treat one gene locus at a time. It can, however, be exploited as a method for detecting the action of natural selection via selective sweeps.

In the extreme case of primarily antibiotic resistance and deadly infectious pathogens. Population genetics of microorganisms is also an essential factor for devising strategies for the conservation and better utilization of beneficial microbes (Xu, 2010).

See also

Notes and references

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External links

  • Population Genetics Tutorials
  • The ALlele FREquency Database at Yale University
  • - Earth Human STR Allele Frequencies Database
  • History of population genetics
  • How Selection Changes the Genetic Composition of Population, video of lecture by Stephen C. Stearns (Yale University)
  • National Geographic: Atlas of the Human Journey (Haplogroup-based human migration maps)
  • Monash Virtual Laboratory - Simulations of habitat fragmentation and population genetics online at Monash University's Virtual Laboratory.
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