Hardy-Weinberg Principle of Equilibrium

Learning Outcomes

  • Define the Hardy-Weinberg principle and discuss its importance

In the early twentieth century, English mathematician Godfrey Hardy and German physician Wilhelm Weinberg stated the principle of equilibrium to describe the genetic makeup of a population. The theory, which later became known as the Hardy-Weinberg principle of equilibrium, states that a population’s allele and genotype frequencies are inherently stable— unless some kind of evolutionary force is acting upon the population, neither the allele nor the genotypic frequencies would change. The Hardy-Weinberg principle assumes conditions with no mutations, migration, emigration, or selective pressure for or against genotype, plus an infinite population; while no population can satisfy those conditions, the principle offers a useful model against which to compare real population changes.

Working under this theory, population geneticists represent different alleles as different variables in mathematical models. But what ultimately interests most biologists is not the frequencies of different alleles, but the frequencies of the resulting genotypes, known as the population’s genetic structure, from which scientists can surmise the distribution of phenotypes. If the phenotype is observed, only the genotype of the homozygous recessive alleles can be known; the calculations provide an estimate of the remaining genotypes.

In theory, if a population is at equilibrium—that is, there are no evolutionary forces acting upon it—generation after generation would have the same gene pool and genetic structure, and the Hardy-Weinberg equation and mathematical calculations would all hold true all of the time. Of course, even Hardy and Weinberg recognized that no natural population is immune to evolution. Populations in nature are constantly changing in genetic makeup due to drift, mutation, possibly migration, and selection. As a result, the only way to determine the exact distribution of phenotypes in a population is to go out and count them. But the Hardy-Weinberg principle gives scientists a mathematical baseline of a non-evolving population to which they can compare evolving populations and thereby infer what evolutionary forces might be at play. If the frequencies of alleles or genotypes deviate from the value expected from the Hardy-Weinberg equation, then the population is evolving.

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