Monday, December 5, 2011

Balancing selection as the natural outcome of adaptation

imageBalancing selection is often presented in opposition to directional selection. Indeed, balancing selection promotes maintenance of genetic variation while directional selection pushes one genetic variant at the expense of the other and removes natural selection from populations. Directional selection is expected to leave genomic signatures of allelic change that is too fast to be explained by the neutral theory while balancing selection is often detected as allelic changes that are too slow. It is thus to our great surprise that we discovered that this opposition might in fact be illusory. In a PNAS paper by Diamantis Sellis, Benjamin Callahan, Dmitri Petrov and Philipp Messer we showed that directional selection in diploids is in fact expected to generate balanced genetic variants. Both directional and balancing selection might be two sides of the same coin, both being the consequence of genetic adaptation. One way to see this is to consider that new adaptive mutations in diploids exist first as heterozygotes. Thus they need to be adaptive as heterozygotes or they would not be seen by natural selection (the so called Haldane sieve). On the other hand nothing ensures that the mutant homozygote needs to be better than the heterozygote. That is not a requirement for the invasion of the adaptive mutation. Using Fisher's phenotypic model of adaptation we showed that if one allows suficiently large mutations to occur then many adaptive mutations should show heterozygote advantage. These adaptive mutations invade the population, persist in the balanced state often for a very short period of time, and then removed due to the invasion of new adaptive mutations that are themselves often overdominant. We argue that balancing selection might be widespread, that balanced alleles do not need to be old as often presumed, and that adaptation might be a force that promotes rather than exhausts genetic variation.

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