The vast majority of mutations are deleterious and are eliminated by purifying selection. Yet in finite asexual populations, purifying selection cannot completely prevent the accumulation of deleterious mutations due to Muller’s ratchet: once lost by stochastic drift, the most-fit class of genotypes is lost forever. If deleterious mutations are weakly selected, Muller’s ratchet can lead to a rapid degradation of population fitness. Evidently, the long-term stability of an asexual population requires an influx of beneficial mutations that continuously compensate for the accumulation of the weakly deleterious ones. Hence any stable evolutionary state of a population in a static environment must involve a dynamic mutation–selection balance, where accumulation of deleterious mutations is on average offset by the influx of beneficial mutations. We argue that such a state can exist for any population size N and mutation rate U and calculate the fraction of beneficial mutations, ε, that maintains the balanced state. We find that a surprisingly low ε suffices to achieve stability, even in small populations in the face of high mutation rates and weak selection, maintaining a well-adapted population in spite of Muller’s ratchet. This may explain the maintenance of mitochondria and other asexual genomes.
- Received April 17, 2012.
- Accepted May 24, 2012.
- Copyright © 2012 by the Genetics Society of America