This press release is available in German.
From protozoans to mammals, evolution has created more and more complex structures and better-adapted organisms. This is all the more astonishing as most genetic mutations are deleterious. Especially in small asexual populations that do not recombine their genes, unfavourable mutations can accumulate. This process is known as Muller's ratchet in evolutionary biology. The ratchet, proposed by the American geneticist Hermann Joseph Muller, predicts that the genome deteriorates irreversibly, leaving populations on a one-way street to extinction. In collaboration with colleagues from the US, Richard Neher from the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology has shown mathematically how Muller's ratchet operates and he has investigated why populations are not inevitably doomed to extinction despite the continuous influx of deleterious mutations.
The great majority of mutations are deleterious. "Due to selection individuals with more favourable genes reproduce more successfully and deleterious mutations disappear again," explains the population geneticist Richard Neher, leader of an independent Max Planck research group at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tbingen, Germany. However, in small populations such as an asexually reproducing virus early during infection, the situation is not so clear-cut. "It can then happen by chance, by stochastic processes alone, that deleterious mutations in the viruses accumulate and the mutation-free group of individuals goes extinct," says Richard Neher. This is known as a click of Muller's ratchet, which is irreversible at least in Muller's model.
Muller published his model on the evolutionary significance of deleterious mutations in 1964. Yet to date a quantitative understanding of the ratchet's processes was lacking. Richard Neher and Boris Shra
|Contact: Dr. Richard Neher |