The evolution of mutation rates: separating causes from consequences

Bioessays. 2000 Dec;22(12):1057-66. doi: 10.1002/1521-1878(200012)22:12<1057::AID-BIES3>3.0.CO;2-W.


Natural selection can adjust the rate of mutation in a population by acting on allelic variation affecting processes of DNA replication and repair. Because mutation is the ultimate source of the genetic variation required for adaptation, it can be appealing to suppose that the genomic mutation rate is adjusted to a level that best promotes adaptation. Most mutations with phenotypic effects are harmful, however, and thus there is relentless selection within populations for lower genomic mutation rates. Selection on beneficial mutations can counter this effect by favoring alleles that raise the mutation rate, but the effect of beneficial mutations on the genomic mutation rate is extremely sensitive to recombination and is unlikely to be important in sexual populations. In contrast, high genomic mutation rates can evolve in asexual populations under the influence of beneficial mutations, but this phenomenon is probably of limited adaptive significance and represents, at best, a temporary reprieve from the continual selection pressure to reduce mutation. The physiological cost of reducing mutation below the low level observed in most populations may be the most important factor in setting the genomic mutation rate in sexual and asexual systems, regardless of the benefits of mutation in producing new adaptive variation. Maintenance of mutation rates higher than the minimum set by this "cost of fidelity" is likely only under special circumstances.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • DNA Replication
  • Genetic Variation
  • Models, Genetic*
  • Mutation*
  • Selection, Genetic