Population Genetics

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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 are natural selection, genetic drift, gene flow, mutation, and genetic recombination and they 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. In the laboratory, the use of DNA fingerprinting tools have also played a central role since the 1980's. [1]

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.[2][3]

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.[2][3] John Maynard Smith was Haldane's pupil, whilst W.D. Hamilton was heavily influenced by the writings of Fisher. The American George R. Price worked with both Hamilton and Maynard Smith. American Richard Lewontin and Japanese Motoo Kimura were heavily influenced by Wright.

Modern evolutionary synthesis[edit]

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.[4] 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.[5] Consensus was reached as to which evolutionary factors might influence evolution, but not as to the relative importance of the various factors.[5]

Theodosius Dobzhansky, a postdoctoral worker in T. H. Morgan's lab, had been influenced by the work on genetic diversity by 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.[6]

Selection vs. genetic drift[edit]

Fisher and Wright had some fundamental disagreements about the relative roles of selection and drift.[7]

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.[2][3][8][9]

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.[10] Mutation and genetic drift are also viewed as major factors in the evolution of genome complexity.[11]


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.[12] A sexual population is a set of organisms in which any pair of members can breed freely together. This implies that all members belong to the same species and are located near each other.[13]

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 phenotypes of the organisms. An example might be a gene for coloration in moths that has two 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.

Four processes[edit]


Natural selection, which includes sexual selection, is the fact that some traits make it more likely for an organism to survive and reproduce. Population genetics describes natural selection by defining fitness as a propensity or probability of survival and reproduction in a particular environment. The fitness is normally given by the symbol w=1-s where s is the selection coefficient. Natural selection acts on phenotypes, or the observable characteristics of organisms, but the 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.[6] 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.[14][15] The time until fixation of such an allele depends little on genetic drift, and is approximately proportional to log(sN)/s.[16]

Hardy–Weinberg principle[edit]

Main article: 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.[17] 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[edit]

Main article: Genetic drift

Genetic drift is a change in allele frequencies caused by random sampling.[18] That is, the alleles in the offspring are a random sample of those in the parents.[19] 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,[20] 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.[21] The role of genetic drift by means of sampling error in evolution has been criticized by John H Gillespie[22] and Will Provine,[23] 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.[24] These approaches are usually applied to the Wright-Fisher and John 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



Drosophila melanogaster

Main article: Mutation

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.[26]

Mutations can involve large sections of DNA becoming duplicated, usually through genetic recombination.[27] 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.[28] Most genes belong to larger families of homologous shared ancestry.[29] 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.[30][31] Here, protein 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.[32] For example, the human eye uses four genes to make structures that sense light: three for the cone cell which produce color vision and one for the rod cell which produces night vision; all four arose from a single ancestral gene.[33] 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.[34][35] Other types of mutation occasionally create new genes from previously noncoding DNA.[36][37]

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.[38] 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.[39] Different insertion vs. deletion mutation biases in different taxa can lead to the evolution of different genome sizes.[40][41] Developmental or mutational biases have also been observed in morphological evolution.[42][43] 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.[44][45]

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.[46][47] 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.[48] For example, pigments are no longer useful when animals live in the darkness of caves, and tend to be lost.[49] 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.[50] 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,[51] indicating that it is driven more by mutation bias than by genetic drift.