How much do we know about spontaneous human mutation rates?

Environ Mol Mutagen. 1993;21(2):122-9. doi: 10.1002/em.2850210205.


The much larger number of cell divisions between zygote and sperm than between zygote and egg, the increased age of fathers of children with new dominant mutations, and the greater evolution rate of pseudogenes of the Y chromosome than of those on autosomes all point to a much higher mutation rate in human males than in females, as first pointed out by Haldane [Ann Eugen 13:262-271, 1947] in his classical study of X-linked hemophilia. The age of the father is the main factor determining the human spontaneous mutation rate, and probably the total mutation rate. The total mutation rate in Drosophila males of genes causing minor reduction in viability is at least 0.4 per sperm, and may be considerably higher. The great mutation load implied by a rate of approximately 1 per zygote can be greatly ameliorated by quasi-truncation selection. Corresponding data are not available for the human population. The evolution rate of pseudogenes in primates suggests some 10(2) new mutations per zygote. Presumably the overwhelming majority of these are neutral, but even the approximate fraction is not known. Statistical evidence in Drosophila shows that mutations with minor effects cause about the same heterozygous impairment of fitness as those that are lethal when homozygous. The magnitude of heterozygous effect is such that almost all mutant genes are eliminated as heterozygotes before ever becoming homozygous. Although quantitative data in the human species are lacking, anecdotal information supports the conclusion that partial dominance is the rule here as well. This suggests that if the human mutation rate were increased or decreased, the effects would be spread over a period of 50-100 generations.

MeSH terms

  • Age Factors
  • Animals
  • Cell Division / genetics
  • Drosophila melanogaster / genetics*
  • Drosophila melanogaster / physiology
  • Female
  • Genes, Dominant / genetics
  • Genes, Recessive / genetics
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mutagenesis / genetics*
  • Mutagenesis / physiology
  • Paternal Age
  • Sex Factors
  • Y Chromosome