Role of mutator alleles in adaptive evolution

Nature. 1997 Jun 12;387(6634):700-2. doi: 10.1038/42696.


Because most newly arising mutations are neutral or deleterious, it has been argued that the mutation rate has evolved to be as low as possible, limited only by the cost of error-avoidance and error-correction mechanisms. But up to one per cent of natural bacterial isolates are 'mutator' clones that have high mutation rates. We consider here whether high mutation rates might play an important role in adaptive evolution. Models of large, asexual, clonal populations adapting to a new environment show that strong mutator genes (such as those that increase mutation rates by 1,000-fold) can accelerate adaptation, even if the mutator gene remains at a very low frequency (for example, 10[-5]). Less potent mutators (10 to 100-fold increase) can become fixed in a fraction of finite populations. The parameters of the model have been set to values typical for Escherichia coli cultures, which behave in a manner similar to the model in long-term adaptation experiments.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological*
  • Alleles*
  • Animals
  • Directed Molecular Evolution
  • Escherichia coli
  • Evolution, Molecular*
  • Mammals
  • Models, Biological
  • Mutation*
  • Selection, Genetic