Population genetics

subfield of genetics that deals with genetic differences of populations, part of evolutionary biology

Population genetics is the branch of genetics which studies the genetic composition of populations.[1] It brings together genetics, evolution, natural selection, breeding, statistics and mathematics.[2] Mathematical and computer models are produced, and field research is done to test the models.

"Population geneticists spend most of their time doing one of two things: describing the genetic structure of populations, or theorizing on the evolutionary forces acting on populations.[3]

A brief history


Starting, perhaps, with G. Udny Yule's paper in 1902,[4] population theorists tackled key issues in genetics and evolution. G.H. Hardy and Wilhelm Weinberg showed that if a population had random mating, no selection, migration or mutation, then the proportion of alleles would remain the same generation after generation. This was the Hardy–Weinberg law,[5] the first great result of this new field of research.

Population genetics made great progress from 1918 to 1937. During this period, Ronald Fisher, J.B.S. Haldane and Sewall Wright worked on the connection between evolution and genetics, using new mathematical techniques, such as statistical probability. E.B. Ford and Theodosius Dobzhansky did field research on the genetics of natural populations of lepidoptera and Drosophila, respectively. Broadly speaking, this work proved that the newly rediscovered Mendelian genetics could be reconciled with Darwinian evolution. This laid the groundwork for the modern evolutionary synthesis, which took place in the following years, from about 1937 to 1953.

In the second half of the 20th century, population geneticists tackled a range of complex evolutionary problems, such as the evolution of sex, sexual selection, kin selection (altruism), mimicry and molecular evolution. The key figures included John Maynard Smith, Motoo Kimura and William Hamilton. Techniques developed for population genetics help to decide what contribution heredity and environment make in developmental biology.[6]

Genetic hitch-hiking and selective sweep


These concepts apply when a mutation is strongly favoured and "pulls along" nearby genes on its chromosome. The genes pulled along are genes which are previously under little selection. In a selective sweep, positive selection causes the new mutation to reach fixation (be the only allele present at that locus in all members of the population) so quickly that linked alleles can "hitchhike" and also become fixed.[7] Evidence is growing that this effect does happen.[8][9][10]


  1. King R.C. Stansfield W.D. & Mulligan P.K. 2006. A dictionary of genetics, 7th ed. Oxford. p349.
  2. Provine, William R. 2001 [1971]. The origins of theoretical population genetics. Chicago.
  3. Gillespie, John H. 2004. Population genetics: a concise guide, 2nd ed. Johns Hopkins, Baltimore.
  4. Yule, G.U. (1902). "Mendel's laws and their probable relations to intra-racial heredity". New Phytologist. 1 (9): 193–207. doi:10.1111/j.1469-8137.1902.tb06590.x.
  5. Edwards, A.W.F. (2008). "G. H. Hardy (1908) and Hardy-Weinberg Equilibrium". Genetics. 179 (3): 1143–1150. doi:10.1534/genetics.104.92940. PMC 2475721. PMID 18645201.
  6. see also nature vs nurture
  7. Smith, John Maynard & Haigh, John 1974. The hitch-hiking effect of a favourable gene. Genetics Research. 23 (1): 23–35. [doi:10.1017/S0016672300014634] PMID 4407212.
  8. Schwartz, Drew 1969. "An example of gene fixation resulting from selective advantage in suboptimal Conditions. The American Naturalist. 103 (933): 479–481. [1]
  9. Rice, William 1987. Genetic hitchhiking and the evolution of reduced genetic activity of the Y sex chromosome. Genetics. 116 (1): 161–167. [2]
  10. Lee, Yuh; Langley, Charles & Begun, David 2014. Differential strengths of positive selection revealed by hitchhiking effects at small physical scales in Drosophila melanogaster. Molecular Biology and Evolution. 31 (4): 804–816. [3]