Perspective: Spontaneous deleterious mutation

Michael Lynch, Jeff Blanchard, David Houle, Travis Kibota, Stewart Schultz, Larissa Vassilieva, John Willis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

391 Scopus citations


Mildly deleterious mutation has been invoked as a leading explanation for a diverse array of observations in evolutionary genetics and molecular evolution and is thought to be a significant risk of extinction for small populations. However, much of the empirical evidence for the deleterious-mutation process derives from studies of Drosophila melanogaster, some of which have been called into question. We review a broad array of data that collectively support the hypothesis that deleterious mutations arise in flies at rate of about one per individual per generation, with the average mutation decreasing fitness by about only 2% in the heterozygous state. Empirical evidence from microbes, plants, and several other animal species provide further support for the idea that most mutations have only mildly deleterious effects on fitness, and several other species appear to have genomic mutation rates that are of the order of magnitude observed in Drosophila. However, there is mounting evidence that some organisms have genomic deleterious mutation rates that are substantially lower than one per individual per generation. These lower rates may be at least partially reconciled with the Drosophila data by taking into consideration the number of germline cell divisions per generation. To fully resolve the existing controversy over the properties of spontaneous mutations, a number of issues need to be clarified. These include the form of the distribution of mutational effects and the extent to which this is modified by the environmental and genetic background and the contribution of basic biological features such as generation length and genome size to interspecific differences in the genomic mutation rate. Once such information is available, it should be possible to make a refined statement about the long-term impact of mutation on the genetic integrity of human populations subject to relaxed selection resulting from modern medical procedures.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)645-663
Number of pages19
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jun 1999
Externally publishedYes


  • Deleterious mutation
  • Fitness
  • Mutation
  • Mutation rate
  • Mutational effect

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Genetics
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


Dive into the research topics of 'Perspective: Spontaneous deleterious mutation'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this