Origination of adaptation: the old and the new (genes)

Adaptation is arguably the most critical biological process in the evolution of species. The process of evolution by natural selection is the cornerstone of evolutionary biology (and indeed, all of contemporary biology!) and adaptation remains fundamental to the process. We know that adaptation is based on the idea that some genetic variants are ‘better’ adapted than others, and thus are unequally shared across a population. But where does this genetic variation come from?

The accumulation of new genetic variation

The classic way for new genetic variants to appear is often thought of as mutation: changes in a single base in the DNA are caused by various external processes such as chemical, physical or environmental influences (such as the sci-fi classics like UV rays or toxic chemicals). Although these forms of mutations happen very rarely and certainly don’t have the same effects comic books would leave you to believe, new mutations can occur relatively rapidly depending on the characteristics of the species. However, the most common way for new mutations to occur is actually part of the DNA replication process: copying DNA is not always perfect and even though the relevant proteins essentially run a spellcheck, sometimes the copy is not 100% perfect and new mutations occur.

Adaptation of mutation figure
An example of how adaptation can occur from a new mutation. In this example, we have one gene (TTXTT), with initial only one allele (variant), TTATT. In the second generation (row), a mutation occurs in one individual which creates a new, second allele: TTGTT. This allele is favoured over the TTATT allele, and in the next generation it’s frequency increases as the alternative allele frequency decreases (the pattern is shown in the frequency values on the right side).

It is important to remember that only mutations that are present in the reproductive cells (sperm and eggs) can be inherited and passed on, and thus be a source for adaptation. Mutations in other tissues of the body, such as within the skin, are not spread across the entire body of the subject and thus aren’t passed on to offspring.

Standing genetic variation

Alternatively, genetic variation might already be present within a species or population. This is more likely if population sizes are large and populations are well connected and interbreeding. We refer to this diverse initial gene pool as ‘standing genetic variation’: that is, the amount of genetic variation within the population or species before the selective pressure requiring adaptation. Standing genetic variation can be thought of as the ‘diversity of choices’ for natural selection to act upon: the variants are readily available, and if a good choice exists it will be favoured by natural selection and become more widespread within the population or species (i.e. evolve).

Adaptation of standing variation figure.jpg
A slightly more complex example of how adaptation can occur from standing variation, this time with two different genes. One codes for fur colour, with two different alleles: GCATA codes for orange fur, and GCGTA codes for grey fur. The other gene codes for ear tufts, with TTCCT coding for tufts and TCCCT coding for no tufts. Natural selection favours both orange fur and tufted ears, and cats with these traits reproduce more frequently than those without (see graph below). These cats probably look familiar.
Graph of standing variation.jpg
The frequency of all four alleles (i.e. either allele for both genes) over the generations in the above figure. Clearly, we can see how adaptation rapidly favours orange fur and tufted ears over grey fur and non-tufted ears with the shifts in frequencies over the different alleles.

We’ve discussed standing genetic variation before on The G-CAT, but often in a different light (and phrasing). For example, when we’ve talked about founder effect: that is, when a population is formed from only a few different individuals which causes it to be very genetically depauperate. In populations under strong founder effect, there is very little standing genetic variation for natural selection to act upon. This has long been an enigma for many pest species: how have they managed to proliferate so widely when they often originate from so few individuals and lack genetic diversity?

Adaptive variation

Adaptation may not require new genetic variants to be generated from mutation. If there are a large number of alleles within the gene pool to start with, then natural selection may favour one of those variants over others and allow adaptation to start immediately. Compared to the rate at which new mutations occur, are potentially corrected for in DNA repair, are potentially erased by genetic drift, and then put under selective pressure, adaptation from standing genetic variation can occur very quickly.

Rate of adaptation figure.jpg
A rough example of the speed of adaptation depending on how the adaptive allele originated: whether it was already present (in the form of standing variation), or whether it was created by a new mutation. As one would expect, there is a significant lag delay in adaptation in the mutation scenario, based on the time it takes for said adaptive mutation to be created through relatively random processes. Thus, a positively selected allele from standing variation can allow a species to adapt much faster than waiting for a positive mutation to occur.

Conserving genetic variation

Given the adaptive potential provided by maintaining a good amount of standing genetic variation, it is imperative to conserve genetic diversity within populations in conservation efforts. This is why we often equate genetic diversity with ‘adaptive potential’ of species, although the exact amount of genetic diversity required for adaptive potential depends on a large number of other factors. Clearly, in some instances species show the ability to adapt to new pressures or novel environments even without a large amount of standing genetic variation.

It is important to remember that standing genetic variation consists of two types: neutral genetic diversity, which is not necessarily under selection at the time, and adaptive genetic diversity, which is directly under selection (although this can be either for or against the given variant). However, currently neutral genetic variants may become adaptive variants in the future if selective pressures change: although those different variants aren’t necessarily beneficial or detrimental at the moment, that may change in the future. Thus, conserving both types of genetic diversity is important for the survivability and longevity of populations under conservation programs.

Other types of adaptation

Although genetic diversity is clearly critically important for adaptive potential, alternative mechanisms for adaptation also exist. One of these relies less on the actual genetic variants being different, but rather how individual genes are used. This can happen in a few different ways, but mostly commonly this is through alternative splicing: when a gene is being ‘read’ and a protein is produced, different parts of the gene can be used (and in different order) to make a completely different protein.

Alternate splicing figure.jpg
An extreme example of alternate splicing of one gene. We start with a single gene, composed of 5 (AE) main gene elements (exons). Different environmental pressures (like fire risk, flooding, cold weather or predators, for example) cause the organism to use different combinations of these exons to make different proteins (right side; AD). Actual alternate splicing is not usually this straight-forward (one gene doesn’t conveniently split into four forms depending on the threat), but the process is generally the same.

Believe it or not, we’ve sort of discussed the effects of alternative splicing before. Phenotypic plasticity occurs when a single organism can have very different physiological traits depending on the environment: even though the genes are the same, they are utilised in different ways to make a different body shape. This is how some species can look incredibly different when they live in different places even if they’re genetically very similar. That said, for the vast majority of species maintaining good levels of genetic diversity is critical for the survivability of said species.

The direction of selection

The nature of adaptation

One of the most fundamental aspects of natural selection and evolution is, of course, the underlying genetic traits that shape the physical, selected traits. Most commonly, this involves trying to understand how changes in the distribution and frequencies of particular genetic variants (alleles) occur in nature and what forces of natural election are shaping them. Remember that natural selection acts directly on the physical characteristics of species; if these characteristics are genetically-determined (which many are), then we can observe the flow-on effects on the genetic diversity of the target species.

Although we might expect that natural selection is a fairly predictable force, there are a myriad of ways it can shape, reduce or maintain genetic diversity and identity of populations and species. In the following examples, we’re going to assume that the mentioned traits are coded for by a single gene with two different alleles for simplicity. Thus, one allele = one version of the trait (and can be used interchangeably). With that in mind, let’s take a look at the three main broad types of changes we observe in nature.

Directional selection

Arguably the most traditional perspective of natural selection is referred to as ‘directional selection’. In this example, nature selection causes one allele to be favoured more than another, which causes it to increase dramatically in frequency compared to the alternative allele. The reverse effect (natural selection pushing against a maladaptive allele) is still covered by directional selection, except that it functions in the opposite way (the allele under negative selection has reduced frequency, shifting towards the alternative allele).

Directional selection diagram
An example of directional selection. In this instance, we have one population of cats and a single phenotypic trait (colour) which ranges from 0 (yellow) to 1 (red). Red colour is selected for above all other colours; the original population has a pretty diverse mix of colours to start. Over time, we can see the average colour of the entire population moves towards more red colours whilst yellow colours start to disappear. Note that although the final population is predominantly red, there is still some (minor) variation in colours. These changes are reflected in the distribution of the colour-coding alleles (right), as it moves towards the red end of the spectrum.

Balancing selection

Natural selection doesn’t always push allele frequencies into different directions however, and sometimes maintains the diversity of alleles in the population. This is what happens in ‘balancing selection’ (sometimes also referred to as ‘stabilising selection’). In this example, natural selection favours non-extreme allele frequencies, and pushes the distribution of allele frequencies more to the centre. This may happen if deviations from the original gene, regardless of the specific change, can have strongly negative effects on the fitness of an organism, or in genes that are most fit when there is a decent amount of variation within them in the population (such as the MHC region, which contributes to immune response). There are a couple other reasons balancing selection may occur, though.

Heterozygote advantage

One example is known as ‘heterozygote advantage’. This is when an organism with two different alleles of a particular gene has greater fitness than an organism with two identical copies of either allele. A seemingly bizarre example of heterozygote advantage is related to sickle cell anaemia in African people. Sickle cell anaemia is a serious genetic disorder which is encoded for by recessive alleles of a haemoglobin gene; thus, a person has to carry two copies of the disease allele to show damaging symptoms. While this trait would ordinarily be strongly selected against in many population, it is maintained in some African populations by the presence of malaria. This seems counterintuitive; why does the presence of one disease maintain another?

Well, it turns out that malaria is not very good at infecting sickle cells; there are a few suggested mechanisms for why but no clear single answer. Naturally, suffering from either sickle cell anaemia or malaria is unlikely to convey fitness benefits. In this circumstance, natural selection actually favours having one sickle cell anaemia allele; while being a carrier isn’t ordinarily as healthy as having no sickle cell alleles, it does actually make the person somewhat resistant to malaria. Thus, in populations where there is a selective pressure from malaria, there is a heterozygote advantage for sickle cell anaemia. For those African populations without likely exposure to malaria, sickle cell anaemia is strongly selected against and less prevalent.

Malaria and sickle diagram
A diagram of how heterozygote advantage works in sickle cell anaemia and malaria resistance. On the top we have our two main traits: the blood cell shape (which has two different alleles; normal and sickle celled) and malaria infection by mosquitoes. Blue circles indicate that the trait has good fitness, whilst red crosses indicate the trait has bad fitness. For the left hand person, having two sickle cell alleles (ss) means they are symptomatic of sickle cell anaemia and is unlikely to have a good quality of life. On the right, having two normal blood cell alleles (SS) means that he is susceptible to malaria infection. The middle person, however, having only one sickle cell allele (Ss) means they are asymptomatic but still resistant to malaria. Thus, being heterozygous for sickle cell is actually beneficial over being homozygous in either direction: this is reflected in the distribution of alleles (bottom). The left side is pushed down by sickle cell anaemia whilst the right side is pushed down by malaria, thus causing both blood cell alleles (s and S) to be maintained at an intermediate frequency (i.e. balanced). 

Frequency-dependent selection

Another form of balancing selection is called ‘frequency-dependent selection’, where the fitness of an allele is inversely proportional to its frequency. Thus, once the allele has become common due to selection, the fitness of that allele is reduced and selection will start to favour the alternative allele (which is at much lower frequency). The constant back-and-forth tipping of the selective scales results in both alleles being maintained at an equilibrium.

This can happen in a number of different ways, but often the rarer trait/allele is fundamentally more fit because of its rarity. For example, if one allele allows an individual to use a new food source, it will be very selectively fit due to the lack of competition with others. However, as that allele accumulates within the population and more individuals start to feed on that food source, the lack of ‘uniqueness’ will mean that it’s not particularly better than the original food source. A balance between the two food sources (and thus alleles) will be maintained over time as shifts towards one will make the other more fit, and natural selection will compensate.

Frequency dependent selection diagram
An example of frequency-dependent selection. The colour of the cat indicates both their genotype and their food sources: black cats eat red apples whilst green cats eat green apples (this species has apparently developed herbivory, okay?) To start with, the incredibly low frequency of green cats mean that the one green cat can exploit a huge food source compared to black cats. Because of this, natural selection favours green cats. However, in the next generation evolution overcompensates and produces way too many green cats, and now black cats are getting much more food. Natural selection bounces back to favour black cats. Eventually, this causes and equilibrium balance of the two cat types (as shifts one way will cause a shift back the other way immediately after). These changes are reflected in the overall frequency of the two types over time (top right), which eventually evens out. The bottom right figure demonstrates that for both cat types, the frequency of that colour is inversely proportional to the overall fitness (measured as a proxy by amount of food per cat).

Disruptive selection

A third category of selection (although not as frequently mentioned) is known as ‘disruptive selection’, which is essentially the direct opposite of balancing selection. In this case, both extremes of allele frequencies are favoured (e.g. 1 for one allele or 1 for the other) but intermediate frequencies are not. This can be difficult to untangle in natural populations since it could technically be attributed to two different cases of directional selection. Each allele of the same gene is directionally selected for, but in opposite populations and directions so that overall pattern shows very little intermediates.

In direct contrast to balancing selection, disruptive selection can often be a case of heterozygote disadvantage (although it’s rarely called that). In these examples, it may be that individuals which are not genetically committed to one end or the other of the frequency spectrum are maladapted since they don’t fit in anywhere. An example would be a species that occupies both the desert and a forested area, with little grassland-type habitat in the middle. For the relevant traits, strongly desert-adapted genes would be selected for in the desert and strongly forest-adapted genes would be selected for in the forest. However, the lack of gradient between the two habitats means that individuals that are half-and-half are less adaptive in both the desert and the forest. A case of jack-of-all-trades, master of none.

Disruptive selection diagram
The above example of disruptive selection. Bird colour is coded for by a single gene; green birds have a HH genotype, orange birds have a hh genotype, and yellow birds are heterozygotes (Hh). Habitats where the two homozygote colours are most adaptive are found; green birds do well in the forest whereas orange birds do well in the desert. However, there’s no intermediate habitat between the two and so yellow birds don’t really fit well anywhere; they’re outcompeted in the forest and desert by the respective other colours. This means selection favours either extreme (homozygotes), shown in the top right. If we split up the two alleles of the genotype though, we can see that this disruptive selection is really the product of two directionally selective traits working in inverse directions: H is favoured at one end and h at the other.

Direction of selection

Although it would be convenient if natural selection was entirely predictable, it often catches up by surprise in how it acts and changes species and populations in the wild. Careful analysis and understanding of the different processes and outcomes of adaptation can feed our overall understanding of evolution, and aid in at least pointing in the right direction for our predictions.

Drifting or driving: directionality in evolution

How random is evolution?

Often, we like to think of evolution fairly anthropomorphically; as if natural selection actively decides what is, and what isn’t, best for the evolution of a species (or population). Of course, there’s not some explicit Evolution God who decrees how a species should evolve, and in reality, evolution reflects a more probabilistic system. Traits that give a species a better chance of reproducing or surviving, and can be inherited by the offspring, will over time become more and more dominant within the species; contrastingly, traits that do the opposite will be ‘weeded out’ of the gene pool as maladaptive organisms die off or are outcompeted by more ‘fit’ individuals. The fitness value of a trait can be determined from how much the frequency of that trait varies over time.

So, if natural selection is just probabilistic, does this mean evolution is totally random? Is it just that traits are selected based on what just happens to survive and reproduce in nature, or are there more direct mechanisms involved? Well, it turns out both processes are important to some degree. But to get into it, we have to explain the difference between genetic drift and natural selection (we’re assuming here that our particular trait is genetically determined).  

Allele frequency over time diagram
The (statistical) overview of natural selection. In this example, we have two different traits in a population; the blue and the red O. Our starting population is 20 individuals (N), with 10 of each trait (a 1:1 ratio, or 50% frequency of each). We’re going to assume that, because the blue is favoured by natural selection, it doubles in frequency each generation (i.e. one individual with the blue has two offspring with one blue each). The red is neither here nor there and is stable over time (one red O produces one red O in the next generation). So, going from Gen 1 to Gen 2, we have twice as many blue Xs (Nt) as we did previously, changing the overall frequency of the traits (highlighted in yellow). Because populations probably don’t exponentially increase every generation, we’ll cut it back down to our original total of 20, but at the same ratios (Np). Over time, we can see that the population gradually accumulates more blue Xs relative to red Os, and by Gen 5 the red is extinct. Thus, the blue X has evolved!

When we consider the genetic variation within a species to be our focal trait, we can tell that different parts of the genome might be more related with natural selection than others. This makes sense; some mutations in the genome will directly change a trait (like fur colour) which might have a selective benefit or detriment, while others might not change anything physically or change traits that are neither here-nor-there under natural selection (like nose shape in people, for example). We can distinguish between these two by talking about adaptive or neutral variation; adaptive variation has a direct link to natural selection whilst neutral variation is predominantly the product of genetic drift. Depending on our research questions, we might focus on one type of variation over the other, but both are important components of evolution as a whole.

Genetic drift

Genetic drift is considered the random, selectively ‘neutral’ changes in the frequencies of different traits (alleles) over time, due to completely random effects such as random mutations or random loss of alleles. This results in the neutral variation we can observe in the gene pool of the species. Changes in allele frequencies can happen due to entirely stochastic events. If, by chance, all of the individuals with the blue fur variant of a gene are struck by lightning and die, the blue fur allele would end up with a frequency of 0 i.e. go extinct. That’s not to say the blue fur ‘predisposed’ the individuals to be struck be lightning (we assume here, anyway), so it’s not like it was ‘targeted against’ by natural selection (see the bottom figure for this example).

Because neutral variation appears under a totally random, probabilistic model, the mathematical basis of it (such as the rate at which mutations appear) has been well documented and is the foundation of many of the statistical aspects of molecular ecology. Much of our ability to detect which genes are under selection is by seeing how much the frequencies of alleles of that gene vary from the neutral model: if one allele is way more frequent than you’d expect by random genetic drift, then you’d say that it’s likely being ‘pushed’ by something: natural selection.

Manhattan plot example
A Manhattan plot, which measures the level of genetic differentiation between two different groups across the genome. The x-axis shows the length of the genome, in this example colour-coded by the specific chromosome of the sequence, while the y-axis shows the level of differentiation between the two groups being studied. The dots represent certain spots (loci, singular locus) in the genome, with the level of differentiation (Fst) measured for that locus in one group vs that locus in the other group. The dotted line represents the ‘average differentiation’: i.e. how different you’d expect the two groups to be by chance. Anything about that line is significantly different between the two groups, either because of drift or natural selection. This plot has been slightly adapted from Axelsson et al. (2013), who were studying domestication in dogs by comparing the genetic architecture of wild wolves versus domestic dogs. In this example we can see that certain regions of the genome are clearly different between dogs and wolves (circled); when the authors looked at the genes within those blocks, they found that many were related to behavioural changes (nervous system), competitive breeding (sperm-egg recognition) and interestingly, starch digestion. This last category suggests that adaptation to an omnivorous diet (likely human food waste) was key in the domestication process.

Natural selection

Contrastingly to genetic drift, natural selection is when particular traits are directly favoured (or unfavoured) in the environmental context of the population; natural selection is very specific to both the actual trait and how the trait works. A trait is only selected for if it conveys some kind of fitness benefit to the individual; in evolutionary genetics terms, this means it allows the individual to have more offspring or to survive better (usually).

While this might be true for a trait in a certain environment, in another it might be irrelevant or even have the reverse effect. Let’s again consider white fur as our trait under selection. In an arctic environment, white fur might be selected for because it helps the animal to camouflage against the snow to avoid predators or catch prey (and therefore increase survivability). However, in a dense rainforest, white fur would stand out starkly against the shadowy greenery of the foliage and thus make the animal a target, making it more likely to be taken by a predator or avoided by prey (thus decreasing survivability). Thus, fitness is very context-specific.

Who wins? Drift or selection?

So, which is mightier, the pen (drift) or the sword (selection)? Well, it depends on a large number of different factors such as mutation rate, the importance of the trait under selection, and even the size of the population. This last one might seem a little different to the other two, but it’s critically important to which process governs the evolution of the species.

In very small populations, we expect genetic drift to be the stronger process. Natural selection is often comparatively weaker because small populations have less genetic variation for it to act upon; there are less choices for gene variants that might be more beneficial than others. In severe cases, many of the traits are probably very maladaptive, but there’s just no better variant to be selected for; look at the plethora of physiological problems in the cheetah for some examples.

Genetic drift, however, doesn’t really care if there’s “good” or “bad” variation, since it’s totally random. That said, it tends to be stronger in smaller populations because a small, random change in the number or frequency of alleles can have a huge effect on the overall gene pool. Let’s say you have 5 cats in your species; they’re nearly extinct, and probably have very low genetic diversity. If one cat suddenly dies, you’ve lost 20% of your species (and up to that percentage of your genetic variation). However, if you had 500 cats in your species, and one died, you’d lose only <0.2% of your genetic variation and the gene pool would barely even notice. The same applies to random mutations, or if one unlucky cat doesn’t get to breed because it can’t find a mate, or any other random, non-selective reason. One way we can think of this is as ‘random error’ with evolution; even a perfectly adapted organism might not pass on its genes if it is really unlucky. A bigger sample size (i.e. more individuals) means this will have less impact on the total dataset (i.e. the species), though.

Drift in small pops
The effect of genetic drift on small populations. In this example, we have two very similar populations of cats, each with three different alleles (black, blue and green) in similar frequencies across the populations. The major difference is the size of the population; the left is much smaller (5 cats) compared to the right (20 cats). If one cat randomly dies from a bolt of lightning (RIP), and assuming that the colour of the cat has no effect on the likelihood of being struck by lightning (i.e. is not under natural selection), then the outcome of this event is entirely due to genetic drift. In this case, the left population has lost 1/5th of its population size and 1/3rd of its total genetic diversity thanks to the death of the genetically unique blue cat (He will be missed) whereas the right population has only really lost 1/20th of its size and no changes in total diversity (it’ll recover).

Both genetic drift and natural selection are important components of evolution, and together shape the overall patterns of evolution for any given species on the planet. The two processes can even feed into one another; random mutations (drift) might become the genetic basis of new selective traits (natural selection) if the environment changes to suit the new variation. Therefore, to ignore one in favour of the other would fail to capture the full breadth of the processes which ultimately shape and determine the evolution of all species on Earth, and thus the formation of the diversity of life.