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Genetics. 2004 Feb;166(2):797-806.

On the rate and linearity of viability declines in Drosophila mutation-accumulation experiments: genomic mutation rates and synergistic epistasis revisited.

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Department of Biology, University of Rochester, Rochester, NY 14627, USA.


High rates of deleterious mutations could severely reduce the fitness of populations, even endangering their persistence; these effects would be mitigated if mutations synergize each others' effects. An experiment by Mukai in the 1960s gave evidence that in Drosophila melanogaster, viability-depressing mutations occur at the surprisingly high rate of around one per zygote and that the mutations interact synergistically. A later experiment by Ohnishi seemed to support the high mutation rate, but gave no evidence for synergistic epistasis. Both of these studies, however, were flawed by the lack of suitable controls for assessing viability declines of the mutation-accumulation (MA) lines. By comparing homozygous viability of the MA lines to simultaneously estimated heterozygous viability and using estimates of the dominance of mutations in the experiments, I estimate the viability declines relative to an appropriate control. This approach yields two unexpected conclusions. First, in Ohnishi's experiment as well as in Mukai's, MA lines showed faster-than-linear declines in viability, indicative of synergistic epistasis. Second, while Mukai's estimate of the genomic mutation rate is supported, that from Ohnishi's experiment is an order of magnitude lower. The different results of the experiments most likely resulted from differences in the starting genotypes; even within Mukai's experiment, a subset of MA lines, which I argue probably resulted from a contamination event, showed much slower viability declines than did the majority of lines. Because different genotypes may show very different mutational behavior, only studies using many founding genotypes can determine the average rate and distribution of effects of mutations relevant to natural populations.

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