Genetic drift is the change in allele frequency from one generation to the next that occurs because alleles are subject to sampling error. As a result, when selective forces are absent or relatively weak, allele frequencies tend to "drift" upward or downward randomly (in a random walk). This drift halts when an allele eventually becomes fixed, either by disappearing from the population, or replacing the other alleles entirely. Genetic drift may therefore eliminate some alleles from a population due to chance alone. Even in the absence of selective forces, genetic drift can cause two separate populations that began with the same genetic structure to drift apart into two divergent populations with different sets of alleles.
It is usually difficult to measure the relative importance of selection and neutral processes, including drift. The comparative importance of adaptive and non-adaptive forces in driving evolutionary change is an area of current research.
The neutral theory of molecular evolution proposed that most evolutionary changes are the result of the fixation of neutral mutations by genetic drift. Hence, in this model, most genetic changes in a population are the result of constant mutation pressure and genetic drift. This form of the neutral theory is now largely abandoned, since it does not seem to fit the genetic variation seen in nature. However, a more recent and better-supported version of this model is the nearly neutral theory, where a mutation that would be neutral in a small population is not necessarily neutral in a large population. Other alternative theories propose that genetic drift is dwarfed by other stochastic forces in evolution, such as genetic hitchhiking, also known as genetic draft.
The time for a neutral allele to become fixed by genetic drift depends on population size, with fixation occurring more rapidly in smaller populations. The number of individuals in a population is not critical, but instead a measure known as the effective population size. The effective population is usually smaller than the total population since it takes into account factors such as the level of inbreeding and the stage of the lifecycle in which the population is the smallest. The effective population size may not be the same for every gene in the same population.
Recombination allows alleles on the same strand of DNA to become separated. However, the rate of recombination is low (approximately two events per chromosome per generation). As a result, genes close together on a chromosome may not always be shuffled away from each other and genes that are close together tend to be inherited together, a phenomenon known as linkage. This tendency is measured by finding how often two alleles occur together on a single chromosome compared to expectations, which is called their linkage disequilibrium. A set of alleles that is usually inherited in a group is called a haplotype. This can be important when one allele in a particular haplotype is strongly beneficial: natural selection can drive a selective sweep that will also cause the other alleles in the haplotype to become more common in the population; this effect is called genetic hitchhiking or genetic draft. Genetic draft caused by the fact that some neutral genes are genetically linked to others that are under selection can be partially captured by an appropriate effective population size.
Analogy with marbles in a jar
The process of genetic drift can be illustrated using 20 marbles in a jar to represent 20 organisms in a population. Consider this jar of marbles as the starting population. Half of the marbles in the jar are red and half blue, and both colors correspond to two different alleles of one gene in the population. In each new generation the organisms reproduce at random. To represent this reproduction, randomly select a marble from the original jar and deposit a new marble with the same color as its "parent" into a new jar. (The selected marble remains in the original jar.) Repeat this process until there are 20 new marbles in the second jar. The second jar then contains a second generation of "offspring", consisting of 20 marbles of various colors. Unless the second jar contains exactly 10 red and 10 blue marbles, a random shift occurred in the allele frequencies.
Repeat this process a number of times, randomly reproducing each generation of marbles to form the next. The numbers of red and blue marbles picked each generation fluctuates: sometimes more red, sometimes more blue. This fluctuation is genetic drift – a change in the population's allele frequency resulting from a random variation in the distribution of alleles from one generation to the next.
It is even possible that in any one generation no marbles of a particular color are chosen, meaning they have no offspring. In this example, if no red marbles are selected the jar representing the new generation contains only blue offspring. If this happens, the red allele has been lost permanently in the population, while the remaining blue allele has become fixed: all future generations are entirely blue. In small populations, fixation can occur in just a few generations.
A population bottleneck is when a population contracts to a significantly smaller size over a short period of time due to some random environmental event. In a true population bottleneck, the odds for survival of any member of the population are purely random, and are not improved by any particular inherent genetic advantage. The bottleneck can result in radical changes in allele frequencies, completely independent of selection.
The impact of a population bottleneck can be sustained, even when the bottleneck is caused by a one-time event such as a natural catastrophe. After a bottleneck, inbreeding increases. This increases the damage done by recessive deleterious mutations, in a process known as inbreeding depression. The worst of these mutations are selected against, leading to the loss of other alleles that are genetically linked to them, in a process of background selection. This leads to a further loss of genetic diversity. In addition, a sustained reduction in population size increases the likelihood of further allele fluctuations from drift in generations to come.
A population's genetic variation can be greatly reduced by a bottleneck, and even beneficial adaptations may be permanently eliminated. The loss of variation leaves the surviving population vulnerable to any new selection pressures such as disease, climate change or shift in the available food source, because adapting in response to environmental changes requires sufficient genetic variation in the population for natural selection to take place.
There have been many known cases of population bottleneck in the recent past. Prior to the arrival of Europeans, North American prairies were habitat for millions of greater prairie chickens. In Illinois alone, their numbers plummeted from about 100 million birds in 1900 to about 50 birds in the 1990s. The declines in population resulted from hunting and habitat destruction, but the random consequence has been a loss of most of the species' genetic diversity. DNA analysis comparing birds from the mid century to birds in the 1990s documents a steep decline in the genetic variation in just in the latter few decades. Currently the greater prairie chicken is experiencing low reproductive success.
Over-hunting also caused a severe population bottleneck in the northern elephant seal in the 19th century. Their resulting decline in genetic variation can be deduced by comparing it to that of the southern elephant seal, which were not so aggressively hunted
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