The mechanisms of inheritance, or genetics, were not understood at the time Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace were developing their idea of natural selection. This lack of understanding was a stumbling block to understanding many aspects of evolution. In fact, the predominant (and incorrect) genetic theory of the time, blending inheritance, made it difficult to understand how natural selection might operate. Darwin and Wallace were unaware of the genetics work by Austrian monk Gregor Mendel, which was published in 1866, not long after the publication of Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species. Mendel’s work was rediscovered in the early twentieth century at which time geneticists were rapidly coming to an understanding of the basics of inheritance. Over the next few decades, genetics and evolution were integrated into what became known as the modern synthesis—the coherent understanding of the relationship between natural selection and genetics that took shape by the 1940s and is generally accepted today. In sum, the modern synthesis describes how evolutionary processes, such as natural selection, can affect a population’s genetic makeup, and, in turn, how this can result in the gradual evolution of populations and species. The theory also connects this change of a population over time, called microevolution, with the processes that gave rise to new species and higher taxonomic groups with widely divergent characters, called macroevolution.
Evolution and Flu Vaccines
Every fall, the media starts reporting on flu vaccinations and potential outbreaks. Scientists, health experts, and institutions determine recommendations for different parts of the population, predict optimal production and inoculation schedules, create vaccines, and set up clinics to provide inoculations. You may think of the annual flu shot as a lot of media hype, an important health protection, or just a briefly uncomfortable prick in your arm. But do you think of it in terms of evolution?
The media hype of annual flu shots is scientifically grounded in our understanding of evolution. Each year, scientists across the globe strive to predict the flu strains that they anticipate being most widespread and harmful in the coming year. This knowledge is based on how flu strains have evolved over time and over the past few flu seasons. Scientists then work to create the most effective vaccine to combat those selected strains. Hundreds of millions of doses are produced in a short period in order to provide vaccinations to key populations at the optimal time.
Because viruses, like the flu, evolve very quickly (especially in evolutionary time), this poses quite a challenge. Viruses mutate and replicate at a fast rate, so the vaccine developed to protect against last year’s flu strain may not provide the protection needed against the coming year’s strain. The evolution of these viruses means continued adaptions to ensure survival, including adaptations to survive previous vaccines.
Recall that a gene for a particular character may have several alleles, or variants, that code for different traits associated with that character. For example, in the ABO blood type system in humans, three alleles determine the particular blood-type protein on the surface of red blood cells. Each individual in a population of diploid organisms can only carry two alleles for a particular gene, but more than two may be present in the individuals that make up the population. Mendel followed alleles as they were inherited from parent to offspring. In the early twentieth century, biologists in a field of study known as population genetics began to study how selective forces change a population through changes in allele and genotypic frequencies.
The allele frequency (or gene frequency) is the rate at which a specific allele appears within a population. Until now we have discussed evolution as a change in the characteristics of a population of organisms, but behind that phenotypic change is genetic change. In population genetics, the term evolution is defined as a change in the frequency of an allele in a population. Using the ABO blood type system as an example, the frequency of one of the alleles, IA, is the number of copies of that allele divided by all the copies of the ABO gene in the population. For example, a study in Jordan found a frequency of IA to be 26.1 percent (Hanania, Hassawi, & Irshaid, 2007). The IB and I0 alleles made up 13.4 percent and 60.5 percent of the alleles respectively, and all of the frequencies added up to 100 percent. A change in this frequency over time would constitute evolution in the population.
The allele frequency within a given population can change depending on environmental factors; therefore, certain alleles become more widespread than others during the process of natural selection. Natural selection can alter the population’s genetic makeup; for example, if a given allele confers a phenotype that allows an individual to better survive or have more offspring. Because many of those offspring will also carry the beneficial allele, and often the corresponding phenotype, they will have more offspring of their own that also carry the allele, thus, perpetuating the cycle. Over time, the allele will spread throughout the population. Some alleles will quickly become fixed in this way, meaning that every individual of the population will carry the allele, while detrimental mutations may be swiftly eliminated if derived from a dominant allele from the gene pool. The gene pool is the sum of all the alleles in a population.
Sometimes, allele frequencies within a population change randomly with no advantage to the population over existing allele frequencies. This phenomenon is called genetic drift. Natural selection and genetic drift usually occur simultaneously in populations and are not isolated events. It is hard to determine which process dominates because it is often nearly impossible to determine the cause of change in allele frequencies at each occurrence. An event that initiates an allele frequency change in an isolated part of the population, which is not typical of the original population, is called the founder effect. Natural selection, random drift, and founder effects can lead to significant changes in the genome of a population.
Hardy-Weinberg Principle of Equilibrium
In the early twentieth century, English mathematician Godfrey Hardy and German physician Wilhelm Weinberg stated the principle of equilibrium to describe the genetic makeup of a population. The theory, which later became known as the Hardy-Weinberg principle of equilibrium, states that a population’s allele and genotype frequencies are inherently stable— unless some kind of evolutionary force is acting upon the population, neither the allele nor the genotypic frequencies would change. The Hardy-Weinberg principle assumes conditions with no mutations, migration, emigration, or selective pressure for or against genotype, plus an infinite population. While no population can satisfy those conditions, the principle offers a useful model against which to compare real population changes.
Working under this theory, population geneticists represent different alleles as different variables in their mathematical models. The variable p represents the dominant allele in the population while the variable q represents the recessive allele. For example, when looking at Mendel’s peas, the variable p represents the frequency of y alleles that confer the color yellow and the variable q represents the frequency of y alleles that confer the color green. If these are the only two possible alleles for a given locus in the population, p + q = 1. In other words, all the p alleles and all the q alleles make up all of the alleles for that locus that are found in the population.
But what ultimately interests most biologists is not the frequencies of different alleles, but the frequencies of the resulting genotypes, known as the population’s genetic structure, from which scientists can surmise the distribution of phenotypes. If the phenotype is observed, only the genotype of the homozygous recessive alleles can be known; the calculations provide an estimate of the remaining genotypes. Since each individual carries two alleles per gene, if the allele frequencies (p and q) are known, predicting the frequencies of these genotypes is a simple mathematical calculation to determine the probability of getting these genotypes if two alleles are drawn at random from the gene pool. So in the above scenario, an individual pea plant could be pp (YY), and thus produce yellow peas; pq (Yy), also yellow; or qq (yy), and thus producing green peas (Figure 1). In other words, the frequency of pp individuals is simply p2; the frequency of pq individuals is 2pq; and the frequency of qq individuals is q2. And, again, if p and q are the only two possible alleles for a given trait in the population, these genotype frequencies will sum to one: p2 + 2pq + q2 = 1.
In plants, violet flower color (V) is dominant over white (v). If p = 0.8 and q = 0.2 in a population of 500 plants, how many individuals would you expect to be homozygous dominant (VV), heterozygous (Vv), and homozygous recessive (vv)? How many plants would you expect to have violet flowers, and how many would have white flowers?
In theory, if a population is at equilibrium—that is, there are no evolutionary forces acting upon it—generation after generation would have the same gene pool and genetic structure, and these equations would all hold true all of the time. Of course, even Hardy and Weinberg recognized that no natural population is immune to evolution. Populations in nature are constantly changing in genetic makeup due to drift, mutation, possibly migration, and selection. As a result, the only way to determine the exact distribution of phenotypes in a population is to go out and count them. But the Hardy-Weinberg principle gives scientists a mathematical baseline of a non-evolving population to which they can compare evolving populations and thereby infer what evolutionary forces might be at play. If the frequencies of alleles or genotypes deviate from the value expected from the Hardy-Weinberg equation, then the population is evolving.
The modern synthesis of evolutionary theory grew out of the cohesion of Darwin’s, Wallace’s, and Mendel’s thoughts on evolution and heredity, along with the more modern study of population genetics. It describes the evolution of populations and species, from small-scale changes among individuals to large-scale changes over paleontological time periods. To understand how organisms evolve, scientists can track populations’ allele frequencies over time. If they differ from generation to generation, scientists can conclude that the population is not in Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium, and is thus evolving.
Hanania, S., Hassawi, D., and Irshaid, N. 2007. “Allele Frequency and Molecular Genotypes of ABO Blood Group System in a Jordanian Population,” Journal of Medical Sciences 7: 51-58, doi:10.3923/jms.2007.51.58.
OpenStax, Biology. OpenStax CNX. June 25, 2020. https://cnx.org/contents/GFy_h8cu@10.137:noBcfThl@7/Understanding-Evolution.