Although molecular methods, such as QTL mapping, have revealed a number of loci with large effects, it is still likely that the bulk of quantitative variability is due to multiple factors, each with small effect. Typically, these have a large additive component. Conventional wisdom argues that selection, natural or artificial, uses up additive variance and thus depletes its supply. Over time, the variance should be reduced, and at equilibrium be near zero. This is especially expected for fitness and traits highly correlated with it. Yet, populations typically have a great deal of additive variance, and do not seem to run out of genetic variability even after many generations of directional selection. Long-term selection experiments show that populations continue to retain seemingly undiminished additive variance despite large changes in the mean value. I propose that there are several reasons for this.
The environment is continually changing so that what was formerly most fit no longer is.
There is an input of genetic variance from mutation, and sometimes from migration.
As intermediate-frequency alleles increase in frequency towards one, producing less variance (as $p \to 1$, $p(1 - p) \to 0$), others that were originally near zero become more common and increase the variance. Thus, a roughly constant variance is maintained.
There is always selection for fitness and for characters closely related to it.
To the extent that the trait is heritable, later generations inherit a disproportionate number of genes acting additively on the trait, thus increasing genetic variance. For these reasons a selected population retains its ability to evolve. Of course, genes with large effect are also important. Conspicuous examples are the small number of loci that changed teosinte to maize, and major phylogenetic changes in the animal kingdom. The relative importance of these along with duplications, chromosome rearrangements, horizontal transmission and polyploidy is yet to be determined. It is likely that only a case-by-case analysis will provide the answers. Despite the difficulties that complex interactions cause for evolution in Mendelian populations, such populations nevertheless evolve very well. Long-lasting species must have evolved mechanisms for coping with such problems. Since such difficulties do not arise in asexual populations, a comparison of epistatic patterns in closely related sexual and asexual species might provide some important insights.
Volume 100, 2021
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