Evolutionary Agents and Their Effects

Evolutionary agents are forces that change the genetic structure of a population. In other words, they cause deviations from the Hardy–Weinberg equilibrium. The known evolutionary agents are mutation, gene flow, genetic drift, non-random mating, and natural selection. Although only natural selection results in adaptation, to understand evolutionary processes we need to discuss all of these evolutionary agents before considering natural selection in detail.


Mutations are changes in the genetic material

The origin of genetic variation is mutation. A mutation, is any change in an organism’s DNA. Mutations appear to be random with respect to the adaptive needs of organisms. Most mutations are harmful to their bearers or are neutral, but if environmental conditions change, previously harmful alleles may become advantageous. In addition, mutations can restore to populations alleles that other evolutionary agents remove. Thus mutations both create and help maintain genetic variation within populations. Mutation rates are very low for most loci that have been studied. Rates as high as one mutation per locus in a thousand zygotes per generation are rare; one in a million is more typical. Nonetheless, these rates are sufficient to create considerable genetic variation because each of a large number of genes may mutate, frame-shift mutations may change many genes simultaneously, and populations often contain large numbers of individuals. For example, if the probability of a point mutation were 10–9 per base pair per generation, then in each human gamete, the DNA of which contains 3. Therefore, each zygote would carry, on average, six new mutations, and the current human population of about 8 billion people would be expected to carry about 48 billion new mutations that were not present one generation earlier. One condition for Hardy–Weinberg equilibrium is that there be no mutation. Although this condition is never strictly met, the rate at which mutations arise at single loci is usually so low that mutations by themselves result in only very small deviations from Hardy–Weinberg expectations. If large deviations are found, it is appropriate to dismiss mutation as the cause and to look for evidence of other evolutionary agents acting on the population.


Movement of individuals or gametes, followed by reproduction, produces gene flow

Few populations are completely isolated from other populations of the same species. Migrations of individuals and movements of gametes between populations are common. If the arriving individuals or gametes reproduce in their new location, they may add new alleles to the gene pool of the population, or they may change the frequencies of alleles already present if they come from a population with different allele frequencies. For a population to be at Hardy–Weinberg equilibrium, there must be no gene flowfrom populations with different allele frequencies.


Genetic drift may cause large changes in small populations

In very small populations, genetic drift— the random loss of individuals and the alleles they possess — may produce large changes in allele frequencies from one generation to the next. Harmful alleles, for example, may increase in frequency because of genetic drift, and rare advantageous alleles may be lost. As we will see later, even in large populations, genetic drift can influence the frequencies of alleles that do not influence the survival and reproductive rates of their bearers. Populations that are normally large may pass through occasional periods when only a small number of individuals survive. During these population bottlenecks, genetic variation can be reduced by genetic drift. Most of the “surviving” beans in the small sample taken from the bean population are, just by chance, red, so the new population has a much higher frequency of red beans than the previous generation had. In a natural population, the allele frequencies would be said to have “drifted.” Suppose we perform a cross of Aa xAa individuals of a species of Drosophila to produce an F1 population in which p = q = 0.5 and in which the genotype frequencies are 0.25 AA, 0.50 Aa, and 0.25 aa. If we randomly select 4 individuals (= 8 copies of the gene) from among the offspring to produce the F2 generation, the allele frequencies in this small sample may differ markedly from p = q = 0.5. If, for example, we happen by chance to draw 2 AA homozygotes and 2 heterozygotes (Aa), the allele frequencies in this “surviving population” will be p = 0.75 (6 out of 8) and q = 0.25 (2 out of 8). If we replicate this sampling experiment 1,000 times, one of the two alleles will be missing entirely from about 8 of the 1,000 “surviving populations.” These numbers show that, as it passes through a bottleneck, a population may lose much of its genetic variation. This is what happened to greater prairie chickens, millions of which lived in the prairies of North America when Europeans first arrived there. As a result of both hunting and habitat destruction, the Illinois population of prairie chickens plummeted from about 100 million birds in 1900 to fewer than 50 individuals in the 1990s. Acomparison of DNA from birds collected in Illinois during the middle of the twentieth century with DNA from the surviving population in the 1990s showed that Illinois prairie chickens had lost most of their genetic diversity. As a result, both hatching success and chick survival were low. To increase the genetic diversity of Illinois prairie chickens, birds from Minnesota, Kansas, and Nebraska were introduced to Illinois. They interbred with the Illinois birds, restoring much of the genetic diversity of that population, which is now increasing in size. When a few pioneering individuals colonize a new region, the resulting population is unlikely to have all the alleles found among members of its source population. The resulting change in genetic variation, called a founder effect, is equivalent to that in a large population reduced by a bottleneck. Scientists were given an opportunity to study the genetic composition of a founding population when Drosophila subobscura, a well-studied European species of fruit fly, was discovered near Puerto Montt, Chile, in 1978 and at Port Townsend, Washington, in 1982. In both South and North America, populations of the flies grew rapidly and expanded their ranges. Today in North America, D. subobscura ranges from British Columbia, Canada, to central California. In Chile it has spread across 23° of latitude, nearly as wide a range as the species has in Europe. The D. subobscura founders probably reached Chile and the United States from Europe aboard the same ship because the two populations are genetically very similar. For example, the North and South American populations have only 20 chromosomal inversions, 19 of which are the same on the two continents, whereas 80 inversions are known from European populations. North and South American populations also have lower allelic diversity at enzyme-producing genes than European populations do. Only alleles that have a frequency higher than 10 percent in European populations are present in the Americas. Thus, as expected for a small founding population, only a small part of the total genetic variation found in Europe reached the Americas. Geneticists estimate that at least ten, but no more than a hundred, flies founded the North and South American populations.


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