Muller's ratchet in symbiont populations

Genetica. 2007 Jun;130(2):199-211. doi: 10.1007/s10709-006-9007-7. Epub 2006 Aug 22.


Muller's ratchet, the inevitable accumulation of deleterious mutations in asexual populations, has been proposed as a major factor in genome degradation of obligate symbiont organisms. Essentially, if left unchecked the ratchet will with certainty cause extinction due to the ever increasing mutational load. This paper examines the evolutionary fate of insect symbionts, using mathematical modelling to simulate the accumulation of deleterious mutations. We investigate the effects of a hierarchical two level population structure. Since each host contains its own subpopulation of symbionts, there will be a large number of small symbiont populations linked indirectly via selection on the host level. We show that although the separate subpopulations will accumulate deleterious mutations quickly, the symbiont population as a whole will be protected from extinction by selection acting on the hosts. As a consequence, the extent of genome degradation observed in present day symbionts is more likely to represent loss of functions that were (near-) neutral to the host, rather than a snap shot of a decline towards complete genetic collapse.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Aphids / microbiology
  • Buchnera / genetics
  • Buchnera / growth & development
  • Genome, Bacterial
  • Models, Genetic*
  • Mutation
  • Selection, Genetic
  • Stochastic Processes
  • Symbiosis / genetics*