Mutations and Evolution

What you’ll learn to do: Recognize that mutations are the basis of microevolution; and that adaptations enhance the survival and reproduction of individuals in a population

We’ve already learned about DNA and mutations, now we’ll learn about how these mutations can drive evolution. This type of evolution falls under the category of microevolution.

Microevolution is the change in allele frequencies that occurs over time within a population. This change is due to five different processes: mutation, selection (natural and artificial), gene flow, gene migration and genetic drift. This change happens over a relatively short (in evolutionary terms) amount of time compared to the changes termed ‘macroevolution’ which is where greater differences in the population occur.

Population genetics is the branch of biology that provides the mathematical structure for the study of the process of microevolution. Ecological genetics concerns itself with observing microevolution in the wild. Typically, observable instances of evolution are examples of microevolution; for example, bacterial strains that have antibiotic resistance.

Microevolution over time leads to speciation or the appearance of novel structure, sometimes classified as macroevolution. Macro and microevolution describe fundamentally identical processes on different scales.

Learning Outcomes

  • Understand the connection between genetics and evolution
  • Understand how environmental changes and selective pressures impact the spread of mutations, contributing to the process of evolution
  • Describe the different types of variation in a population

Population Genetics

Darwin Meets Mendel—Not Literally

When Darwin came up with his theories of evolution and natural selection, he knew that the processes he was describing depended on heritable variation in populations. That is, they relied on differences in the features of the organisms in a population and on the ability of these different features to be passed on to offspring.

Darwin did not, however, know how traits were inherited. Like other scientists of his time, he thought that traits were passed on via blending inheritance. In this model, parents’ traits are supposed to permanently blend in their offspring. The blending model was disproven by Austrian monk Gregor Mendel, who found that traits are specified by non-blending heritable units called genes.

Although Mendel published his work on genetics just a few years after Darwin published his ideas on evolution, Darwin probably never read Mendel’s work. Today, we can combine Darwin’s and Mendel’s ideas to arrive at a clearer understanding of what evolution is and how it takes place.

Microevolution and Population Genetics

Microevolution, or evolution on a small scale, is defined as a change in the frequency of gene variants, alleles, in a population over generations. The field of biology that studies allele frequencies in populations and how they change over time is called population genetics.

Microevolution is sometimes contrasted with macroevolution, evolution that involves large changes, such as formation of new groups or species, and happens over long time periods. However, most biologists view microevolution and macroevolution as the same process happening on different timescales. Microevolution adds up gradually, over long periods of time to produce macroevolutionary changes. It is important to remember that both these processes are based on changes in DNA sequences, or mutations. Not all mutations are beneficial, just as not all are harmful. Furthermore, the impact of a particular mutation (benefit or harm) may change if the environment changes. This is natural selection in action.

Let’s look at three concepts that are core to the definition of microevolution: populations, alleles, and allele frequency.

Populations

A population is a group of organisms of the same species that are found in the same area and can interbreed. A population is the smallest unit that can evolve—in other words, an individual can’t evolve.

Alleles

An allele is a version of a gene, a heritable unit that controls a particular feature of an organism.

For instance, Mendel studied a gene that controls flower color in pea plants. This gene comes in a white allele, w, and a purple allele, W. Each pea plant has two gene copies, which may be the same or different alleles. When the alleles are different, one—the dominant allele, W—may hide the other—the recessive allele, w. A plant’s set of alleles, called its genotype, determines its phenotype, or observable features, in this case flower color.

The phenotype is the flower color. The genotype is a pair of alleles. A capital W indicates the dominant purple allele. A lowercase w indicates the recessive white allele. A flower with two capital Ws in its genotype will be purple. A flower with a capital W and lowercase w genotype will be purple. A flower with two lowercase ws in its genotype will be white.

Allele Frequency

Allele frequency refers to how frequently a particular allele appears in a population. For instance, if all the alleles in a population of pea plants were purple alleles, W, the allele frequency of W would be 100%, or 1.0. However, if half the alleles were W and half were w, each allele would have an allele frequency of 50%, or 0.5.

In general, we can define allele frequency as

[latex]\text{Frequency of allele }A=\frac{\text{Number of copies of allele }A\text{ in population}}{\text{Total number of }A\text{/}a\text{ gene copies in population}}[/latex]

Sometimes there are more than two alleles in a population (e.g., there might be A, a, and A​i alleles of a gene). In that case, you would want to add up all of the different alleles to get your denominator.

It’s also possible to calculate genotype frequencies—the fraction of individuals with a given genotype—and phenotype frequencies—the fraction of individuals with a given phenotype. Keep in mind, though, that these are different concepts from allele frequency. We’ll see an example of this difference next.

Video Summary

This video talks about population genetics, which helps to explain the evolution of populations over time.

Selective and Environmental Pressures

Natural selection only acts on the population’s heritable traits: selecting for beneficial alleles and thus increasing their frequency in the population, while selecting against deleterious alleles and thereby decreasing their frequency—a process known as adaptive evolution. Natural selection does not act on individual alleles, however, but on entire organisms. An individual may carry a very beneficial genotype with a resulting phenotype that, for example, increases the ability to reproduce (fecundity), but if that same individual also carries an allele that results in a fatal childhood disease, that fecundity phenotype will not be passed on to the next generation because the individual will not live to reach reproductive age. Natural selection acts at the level of the individual; it selects for individuals with greater contributions to the gene pool of the next generation, known as an organism’s evolutionary (Darwinian) fitness.

Fitness is often quantifiable and is measured by scientists in the field. However, it is not the absolute fitness of an individual that counts, but rather how it compares to the other organisms in the population. This concept, called relative fitness, allows researchers to determine which individuals are contributing additional offspring to the next generation, and thus, how the population might evolve.

There are several ways selection can affect population variation: stabilizing selection, directional selection, diversifying selection, frequency-dependent selection, and sexual selection. As natural selection influences the allele frequencies in a population, individuals can either become more or less genetically similar and the phenotypes displayed can become more similar or more disparate.

Stabilizing Selection

If natural selection favors an average phenotype, selecting against extreme variation, the population will undergo stabilizing selection (Figure 1a). In a population of mice that live in the woods, for example, natural selection is likely to favor individuals that best blend in with the forest floor and are less likely to be spotted by predators. Assuming the ground is a fairly consistent shade of brown, those mice whose fur is most closely matched to that color will be most likely to survive and reproduce, passing on their genes for their brown coat. Mice that carry alleles that make them a bit lighter or a bit darker will stand out against the ground and be more likely to fall victim to predation. As a result of this selection, the population’s genetic variance will decrease.

Directional Selection

When the environment changes, populations will often undergo directional selection (Figure 1b), which selects for phenotypes at one end of the spectrum of existing variation. A classic example of this type of selection is the evolution of the peppered moth in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the moths were predominately light in color, which allowed them to blend in with the light-colored trees and lichens in their environment. But as soot began spewing from factories, the trees became darkened, and the light-colored moths became easier for predatory birds to spot. Over time, the frequency of the melanic form of the moth increased because they had a higher survival rate in habitats affected by air pollution because their darker coloration blended with the sooty trees. Similarly, the hypothetical mouse population may evolve to take on a different coloration if something were to cause the forest floor where they live to change color. The result of this type of selection is a shift in the population’s genetic variance toward the new, fit phenotype.

In science, sometimes things are believed to be true, and then new information comes to light that changes our understanding. The story of the peppered moth is an example: the facts behind the selection toward darker moths have recently been called into question. Read this article to learn more.

Diversifying Selection

Sometimes two or more distinct phenotypes can each have their advantages and be selected for by natural selection, while the intermediate phenotypes are, on average, less fit. Known as diversifying selection (Figure 1c), this is seen in many populations of animals that have multiple male forms. Large, dominant alpha males obtain mates by brute force, while small males can sneak in for furtive copulations with the females in an alpha male’s territory. In this case, both the alpha males and the “sneaking” males will be selected for, but medium-sized males, which can’t overtake the alpha males and are too big to sneak copulations, are selected against. Diversifying selection can also occur when environmental changes favor individuals on either end of the phenotypic spectrum. Imagine a population of mice living at the beach where there is light-colored sand interspersed with patches of tall grass. In this scenario, light-colored mice that blend in with the sand would be favored, as well as dark-colored mice that can hide in the grass. Medium-colored mice, on the other hand, would not blend in with either the grass or the sand, and would thus be more likely to be eaten by predators. The result of this type of selection is increased genetic variance as the population becomes more diverse.

Practice Question

 Part (a) shows a robin clutch size as an example of stabilizing selection. Robins typically lay four eggs. Larger clutches may result in malnourished chicks, while smaller clutches may result in no viable offspring. A wide bell curve indicates that, in the original population, there was a lot of variability in clutch size. Overlaying this wide bell curve is a narrow one that represents the clutch size after natural selection, which is much less variable. Part (b) shows moth color as an example of directional selection. Light-colored pepper moths are better camouflaged against a pristine environment, while dark-colored peppered moths are better camouflaged against a sooty environment. Thus, as the Industrial Revolution progressed in nineteenth-century England, the color of the moth population shifted from light to dark, an example of directional selection. A bell curve representing the original population and one representing the population after natural selection only slightly overlap. Part (c) shows rabbit coat color as an example of diversifying selection. In this hypothetical example, gray and Himalayan (gray and white) rabbits are better able to blend into their rocky environment than white ones. The original population is represented by a bell curve in which white is the most common coat color, while gray and Himalayan colors, on the right and left flank of the curve, are less common. After natural selection, the bell curve splits into two peaks, indicating gray and Himalayan coat color have become more common than the intermediate white coat color.

Figure 1. Different types of natural selection can impact the distribution of phenotypes within a population. In (a) stabilizing selection, an average phenotype is favored. In (b) directional selection, a change in the environment shifts the spectrum of phenotypes observed. In (c) diversifying selection, two or more extreme phenotypes are selected for, while the average phenotype is selected against.

In recent years, factories have become cleaner, and less soot is released into the environment. What impact do you think this has had on the distribution of moth color in the population?

Frequency-dependent Selection

 Photo shows a mottled green and brown lizard sitting on a rock.

Figure 2. A yellow-throated side-blotched lizard is smaller than either the blue-throated or orange-throated males and appears a bit like the females of the species, allowing it to sneak copulations. (credit: “tinyfroglet”/Flickr)

Another type of selection, called frequency-dependent selection, favors phenotypes that are either common (positive frequency-dependent selection) or rare (negative frequency-dependent selection). An interesting example of this type of selection is seen in a unique group of lizards of the Pacific Northwest. Male common side-blotched lizards come in three throat-color patterns: orange, blue, and yellow. Each of these forms has a different reproductive strategy: orange males are the strongest and can fight other males for access to their females; blue males are medium-sized and form strong pair bonds with their mates; and yellow males (Figure 2) are the smallest, and look a bit like females, which allows them to sneak copulations. Like a game of rock-paper-scissors, orange beats blue, blue beats yellow, and yellow beats orange in the competition for females. That is, the big, strong orange males can fight off the blue males to mate with the blue’s pair-bonded females, the blue males are successful at guarding their mates against yellow sneaker males, and the yellow males can sneak copulations from the potential mates of the large, polygynous orange males.

In this scenario, orange males will be favored by natural selection when the population is dominated by blue males, blue males will thrive when the population is mostly yellow males, and yellow males will be selected for when orange males are the most populous. As a result, populations of side-blotched lizards cycle in the distribution of these phenotypes—in one generation, orange might be predominant, and then yellow males will begin to rise in frequency. Once yellow males make up a majority of the population, blue males will be selected for. Finally, when blue males become common, orange males will once again be favored.

Negative frequency-dependent selection serves to increase the population’s genetic variance by selecting for rare phenotypes, whereas positive frequency-dependent selection usually decreases genetic variance by selecting for common phenotypes.

Sexual Selection

Males and females of certain species are often quite different from one another in ways beyond the reproductive organs. Males are often larger, for example, and display many elaborate colors and adornments, like the peacock’s tail, while females tend to be smaller and duller in decoration. Such differences are known as sexual dimorphisms (Figure 3), which arise from the fact that in many populations, particularly animal populations, there is more variance in the reproductive success of the males than there is of the females. That is, some males—often the bigger, stronger, or more decorated males—get the vast majority of the total matings, while others receive none. This can occur because the males are better at fighting off other males, or because females will choose to mate with the bigger or more decorated males. In either case, this variation in reproductive success generates a strong selection pressure among males to get those matings, resulting in the evolution of bigger body size and elaborate ornaments to get the females’ attention. Females, on the other hand, tend to get a handful of selected matings; therefore, they are more likely to select more desirable males.

Sexual dimorphism varies widely among species, of course, and some species are even sex-role reversed. In such cases, females tend to have a greater variance in their reproductive success than males and are correspondingly selected for the bigger body size and elaborate traits usually characteristic of males.

The photo on the left shows a peacock with a bright blue body and flared tail feathers standing next to a brown, drab peahen. The middle photo shows a large female spider sitting on a web next to its male counterpart. The photo on the right shows a brightly colored male wood duck swimming next to a drab brown female.

Figure 3. Sexual dimorphism is observed in (a) peacocks and peahens, (b) Argiope appensa spiders (the female spider is the large one), and in (c) wood ducks. (credit “spiders”: modification of work by “Sanba38″/Wikimedia Commons; credit “duck”: modification of work by Kevin Cole)

The selection pressures on males and females to obtain matings is known as sexual selection; it can result in the development of secondary sexual characteristics that do not benefit the individual’s likelihood of survival but help to maximize its reproductive success. Sexual selection can be so strong that it selects for traits that are actually detrimental to the individual’s survival. Think, once again, about the peacock’s tail. While it is beautiful and the male with the largest, most colorful tail is more likely to win the female, it is not the most practical appendage. In addition to being more visible to predators, it makes the males slower in their attempted escapes. There is some evidence that this risk, in fact, is why females like the big tails in the first place. The speculation is that large tails carry risk, and only the best males survive that risk: the bigger the tail, the more fit the male. This idea is known as the handicap principle.

The good genes hypothesis states that males develop these impressive ornaments to show off their efficient metabolism or their ability to fight disease. Females then choose males with the most impressive traits because it signals their genetic superiority, which they will then pass on to their offspring. Though it might be argued that females should not be picky because it will likely reduce their number of offspring, if better males father more fit offspring, it may be beneficial. Fewer, healthier offspring may increase the chances of survival more than many, weaker offspring.

In both the handicap principle and the good genes hypothesis, the trait is said to be an honest signal of the males’ quality, thus giving females a way to find the fittest mates— males that will pass the best genes to their offspring.

No Perfect Organism

Natural selection is a driving force in evolution and can generate populations that are better adapted to survive and successfully reproduce in their environments. But natural selection cannot produce the perfect organism. Natural selection can only select on existing variation in the population; it does not create anything from scratch. Thus, it is limited by a population’s existing genetic variance and whatever new alleles arise through mutation and gene flow.

Natural selection is also limited because it works at the level of individuals, not alleles, and some alleles are linked due to their physical proximity in the genome, making them more likely to be passed on together (linkage disequilibrium). Any given individual may carry some beneficial alleles and some unfavorable alleles. It is the net effect of these alleles, or the organism’s fitness, upon which natural selection can act. As a result, good alleles can be lost if they are carried by individuals that also have several overwhelmingly bad alleles; likewise, bad alleles can be kept if they are carried by individuals that have enough good alleles to result in an overall fitness benefit.

Furthermore, natural selection can be constrained by the relationships between different polymorphisms. One morph may confer a higher fitness than another, but may not increase in frequency due to the fact that going from the less beneficial to the more beneficial trait would require going through a less beneficial phenotype. Think back to the mice that live at the beach. Some are light-colored and blend in with the sand, while others are dark and blend in with the patches of grass. The dark-colored mice may be, overall, more fit than the light-colored mice, and at first glance, one might expect the light-colored mice be selected for a darker coloration. But remember that the intermediate phenotype, a medium-colored coat, is very bad for the mice—they cannot blend in with either the sand or the grass and are more likely to be eaten by predators. As a result, the light-colored mice would not be selected for a dark coloration because those individuals that began moving in that direction (began being selected for a darker coat) would be less fit than those that stayed light.

Finally, it is important to understand that not all evolution is adaptive. While natural selection selects the fittest individuals and often results in a more fit population overall, other forces of evolution, including genetic drift and gene flow, often do the opposite: introducing deleterious alleles to the population’s gene pool. Evolution has no purpose—it is not changing a population into a preconceived ideal. It is simply the sum of the various forces described in this chapter and how they influence the genetic and phenotypic variance of a population.

In Summary: Selective and Environmental Pressures

Because natural selection acts to increase the frequency of beneficial alleles and traits while decreasing the frequency of deleterious qualities, it is adaptive evolution. Natural selection acts at the level of the individual, selecting for those that have a higher overall fitness compared to the rest of the population. If the fit phenotypes are those that are similar, natural selection will result in stabilizing selection, and an overall decrease in the population’s variation. Directional selection works to shift a population’s variance toward a new, fit phenotype, as environmental conditions change. In contrast, diversifying selection results in increased genetic variance by selecting for two or more distinct phenotypes.

Other types of selection include frequency-dependent selection, in which individuals with either common (positive frequency-dependent selection) or rare (negative frequency-dependent selection) phenotypes are selected for. Finally, sexual selection results from the fact that one sex has more variance in the reproductive success than the other. As a result, males and females experience different selective pressures, which can often lead to the evolution of phenotypic differences, or sexual dimorphisms, between the two.

Genetic Variation and Drift

This photo shows four kittens in a basket: two are gray, black, orange, and white, the third cat is orange and white, and the fourth cat is black.

Figure 1. The distribution of phenotypes in this litter of kittens illustrates population variation. (credit: Pieter Lanser)

Individuals of a population often display different phenotypes, or express different alleles of a particular gene, referred to as polymorphisms. Populations with two or more variations of particular characteristics are called polymorphic. The distribution of phenotypes among individuals, known as the population variation, is influenced by a number of factors, including the population’s genetic structure and the environment (Figure 1). Understanding the sources of a phenotypic variation in a population is important for determining how a population will evolve in response to different evolutionary pressures.

Genetic Variance

Natural selection and some of the other evolutionary forces can only act on heritable traits, namely an organism’s genetic code. Because alleles are passed from parent to offspring, those that confer beneficial traits or behaviors may be selected for, while deleterious alleles may be selected against. Acquired traits, for the most part, are not heritable. For example, if an athlete works out in the gym every day, building up muscle strength, the athlete’s offspring will not necessarily grow up to be a body builder. If there is a genetic basis for the ability to run fast, on the other hand, this may be passed to a child. Ultimately, heritability tells us how much phenotypic variation in a population is ulimately due to genetic differences as opposed to acquired differences.

The diversity of alleles and genotypes within a population is called genetic variance. When scientists are involved in the breeding of a species, such as with animals in zoos and nature preserves, they try to increase a population’s genetic variance to preserve as much of the phenotypic diversity as they can. This also helps reduce the risks associated with inbreeding, the mating of closely related individuals, which can have the undesirable effect of bringing together deleterious recessive mutations that can cause abnormalities and susceptibility to disease.

In addition to natural selection, there are other evolutionary forces that could be in play: genetic drift, gene flow, mutation, nonrandom mating, and environmental variances.

Genetic Drift

The theory of natural selection stems from the observation that some individuals in a population are more likely to survive longer and have more offspring than others; thus, they will pass on more of their genes to the next generation. A big, powerful male gorilla, for example, is much more likely than a smaller, weaker one to become the population’s silverback, the pack’s leader who mates far more than the other males of the group. The pack leader will father more offspring, who share half of his genes, and are likely to also grow bigger and stronger like their father. Over time, the genes for bigger size will increase in frequency in the population, and the population will, as a result, grow larger on average. That is, this would occur if this particular selection pressure, or driving selective force, were the only one acting on the population. In other examples, better camouflage or a stronger resistance to drought might pose a selection pressure.

Another way a population’s allele and genotype frequencies can change is genetic drift (Figure 2), which is simply the effect of chance. By chance, some individuals will have more offspring than others—not due to an advantage conferred by some genetically-encoded trait, but just because one male happened to be in the right place at the right time (when the receptive female walked by) or because the other one happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time (when a fox was hunting).

A population has 10 rabbits. 2 of these rabbits are homozygous dominant for the B allele and have brown coat color. 6 are heterozygous and also have brown coat color. Two are homozygous recessive and have white coat color. The frequency of the capital B allele, p, is .5 and the frequency of the small b allele, q, is also .5.Only 5 of the rabbits, including 2 homozygous dominant and 3 heterozygous individuals, produce offspring. 5 of the resulting offspring are homozygous dominant, 4 are heterozygous, and 1 is homozygous recessive. The frequency of alleles in the second generation is p=.7 and q=.3. Only 2 rabbits in the second generation produce offspring, and both of these are homozygous dominant. As a result, the recessive small b allele is lost in the third generation, and all of the rabbits are heterozygous dominant with brown coat color.

Figure 2. Click for a larger image. Genetic drift in a population can lead to the elimination of an allele from a population by chance. In this example, rabbits with the brown coat color allele (B) are dominant over rabbits with the white coat color allele (b). In the first generation, the two alleles occur with equal frequency in the population, resulting in p and q values of .5. Only half of the individuals reproduce, resulting in a second generation with p and q values of .7 and .3, respectively. Only two individuals in the second generation reproduce, and by chance these individuals are homozygous dominant for brown coat color. As a result, in the third generation the recessive b allele is lost.

Practice Question

Do you think genetic drift would happen more quickly on an island or on the mainland?

Small populations are more susceptible to the forces of genetic drift. Large populations, on the other hand, are buffered against the effects of chance. If one individual of a population of 10 individuals happens to die at a young age before it leaves any offspring to the next generation, all of its genes—1/10 of the population’s gene pool—will be suddenly lost. In a population of 100, that’s only 1 percent of the overall gene pool; therefore, it is much less impactful on the population’s genetic structure.

Watch this animation of random sampling and genetic drift in action:

Simulation of a common example used describing the effect random sampling has in genetic drift. In this population of 20, there is a shift from an allele frequency of 50% for the blue allele to 100% for the blue allele in just 5 generations.

Bottleneck Effect

This illustration shows a narrow-neck bottle filled with red, orange, and green marbles. The bottle is tipped so the marbles pour into a glass. Because of the bottleneck, only seven marbles escape, and these are all orange and green. The marbles in the bottle represent the original population, and the marbles in the glass represent the surviving population. Because of the bottleneck effect, the surviving population is less diverse than the original population.

Figure 3. A chance event or catastrophe can reduce the genetic variability within a population.

Genetic drift can also be magnified by natural events, such as a natural disaster that kills—at random—a large portion of the population. Known as the bottleneck effect, it results in a large portion of the genome suddenly being wiped out (Figure 3). In one fell swoop, the genetic structure of the survivors becomes the genetic structure of the entire population, which may be very different from the pre-disaster population.

Founder Effect

Another scenario in which populations might experience a strong influence of genetic drift is if some portion of the population leaves to start a new population in a new location or if a population gets divided by a physical barrier of some kind. In this situation, those individuals are unlikely to be representative of the entire population, which results in the founder effect. The founder effect occurs when the genetic structure changes to match that of the new population’s founding fathers and mothers. The founder effect is believed to have been a key factor in the genetic history of the Afrikaner population of Dutch settlers in South Africa, as evidenced by mutations that are common in Afrikaners but rare in most other populations. This is likely due to the fact that a higher-than-normal proportion of the founding colonists carried these mutations. As a result, the population expresses unusually high incidences of Huntington’s disease (HD) and Fanconi anemia (FA), a genetic disorder known to cause blood marrow and congenital abnormalities—even cancer.

Watch this short video to learn more about the founder and bottleneck effects. Note that the video has no audio.

Gene Flow

This illustration shows an individual from a population of brown insects traveling toward a population of green insects.

Figure 4. Gene flow can occur when an individual travels from one geographic location to another.

Another important evolutionary force is gene flow: the flow of alleles in and out of a population due to the migration of individuals or gametes (Figure 4). While some populations are fairly stable, others experience more flux. Many plants, for example, send their pollen far and wide, by wind or by bird, to pollinate other populations of the same species some distance away. Even a population that may initially appear to be stable, such as a pride of lions, can experience its fair share of immigration and emigration as developing males leave their mothers to seek out a new pride with genetically unrelated females. This variable flow of individuals in and out of the group not only changes the gene structure of the population, but it can also introduce new genetic variation to populations in different geological locations and habitats.

Check Your Understanding

Answer the question(s) below to see how well you understand the topics covered in the previous section. This short quiz does not count toward your grade in the class, and you can retake it an unlimited number of times.

Use this quiz to check your understanding and decide whether to (1) study the previous section further or (2) move on to the next section.