5 Chapter 5: Non-adaptive mechanisms of evolution

Anastasia Chouvalova and Lisa Limeri

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, students will be able to:

5.1 Define genetic drift and describe how it influences allele frequencies. Explain why it is more important in small populations than in large populations and why it eventually leads to fixation or loss of alleles. Provide examples of events or processes that cause drift.

5.2 Define gene flow and describe how it impacts allele frequencies in the source and recipient population.

5.3 Defend the statement “mutation is the ultimate source of genetic variation,” and explain why mutation is random with respect to its impact on an individual’s fitness.

5.4 Explain how gene flow, inbreeding, and genetic drift may positively or negatively affect endangered species that live in isolated (fragmented) habitats.

Mechanisms of Evolution

So far this semester we have focused on how different types of selection drive evolution. Selection is the only mechanism of evolution that drivesadaptive evolution – evolution that causes populations to become better adapted to their environments. However, not all evolution is adaptive. Evolution is changes in allele frequencies i populations over generations. The allele frequency describes the proportions of all of the possible alleles in the population’s gene pool. The gene pool is the sum of all the alleles in a population. Changes in allele frequencies can be driven by more factors than just selection. Here we will investigate the three other mechanisms of evolution: gene flow, mutation, and genetic drift.

Gene Flow

Gene flow refers to the flow of alleles in and out of a population due to the migration of individuals or gametes (Fig 5.1). While some populations are fairly stable, others experience more flux. Many plants, for example, send their pollen far and wide, by wind or by pollinator, to pollinate other populations of the same species some distance away. Even a population that may initially appear to be stable, such as a pride of lions, experience immigration (coming into) and emigration (departing from) as developing males leave their mothers to seek out a new pride with genetically unrelated females. The flow of individuals in and out of populations changes the population’s allele frequencies. When an individual migrates into a new population, it may sometimes carry alleles that were not present in that population before, introducing new genetic variation into that population (Fig 5.1). Alternatively, if an individual emigrates from (leaves) a population where it was the only individual with a particular allele, it can result in its original population losing genetic diversity. Migration between populations causes them to become more genetically similar to each other. For example, alleles that may be present in one population but not the other can become present in both populations when a migrating individual introduces that allele to the new population.

Figure 5.1 Gene flow occurs when an individual migrates from one population to another. (Credit)

There are many examples of populations evolving through gene flow. An appreciation of gene flow can help us understand the global distribution of HIV resistance in humans. The CCR5 mutation confers resistance to some forms of HIV, yet is not most common in areas with a high prevalence of HIV and AIDS. The mutation is relatively new: biochemical and biogeographic evidence suggest an origin in Northern Europe approximately 1,200 years ago. However, the mutation was distributed globally long before HIV and AIDS were relevant to human health. In fact, the mutation’s distribution pattern mirrors the Viking migration of the 9th through 11th centuries. Thus, we can hypothesize that Vikings carried the mutation with them as they conquered new territories, and passed the mutation to their descendants. But why was this genetic feature prevalent in Vikings? We’ll develop that story further below.

Reading Question #1

What can result from an individual migrating to a new population?

A. The original population losing genetic diversity
B. The new population gaining genetic diversity
C. Allele frequencies in both populations changing
D. All of the above


Mutation is a random change in the DNA sequence. Mutation is the ultimate source of genetic variation in all populations—new alleles, and, therefore, new genetic variations arise through mutation. A mutation creates a new allele, and thus by definition results in a small change in the allele frequencies within the population in which it occurs.

A mutation may produce an allele that is selected against, selected for, or selectively neutral. Harmful mutations (also called deleterious mutations) are removed from the population by selection and will generally only be found in very low frequencies equal to the mutation rate. Some are beneficial and will spread through the population. Whether a mutation is beneficial or harmful is determined by the environmental context in which it exists. If it helps an organism survive and reproduce in its environment, it is beneficial and therefore an adaptation. Some mutations do not do have any impact on fitness (called neutral mutations). The prevalence of neutral mutations is unaffected by selection, and only subject to the other mechanisms of evolution.

Reading Question #2

Which of the following describes how mutations affect an individual’s fitness.

A. All mutations are beneficial to an individual’s fitness.
B. All mutations are harmful to an individual’s fitness.
C. All mutations are neutral with respect to an individual’s fitness.
D. Mutations can be beneficial, harmful, or neutral with respect to an individual’s fitness.

Genetic Drift

Genetic drift refers to changes in allele frequencies across generations that occurs purely by random chance. The term “random” is key to an understanding of drift. Sometimes chance events, such a natural disaster, influence which individuals survive and reproduce and thus influence the allele frequencies in the next generation. Thus, evolution has occurred due only to random chance – this is genetic drift. While natural selection results from aspects of an organism’s environment exerting “selective pressure” on the individual (e.g., the desert environment favors the spines of the cactus and the long ears of the fox), genetic drift is not a result of environmental pressures. Genetic drift, like natural selection, is occurring all of the time in all environments. Drift will influence every allele, including those that are being naturally selected. Thus, it can be difficult to determine which process dominates because it is often nearly impossible to determine the exact cause of change in allele frequencies at any given time.

Reading Question #3

Which of the following accurately describes genetic drift?

A. Adaptive changes in allele frequencies in a population.
B. Random changes in allele frequencies in a population.
C. Changes in allele frequencies due to migration of individuals to a new population.
D. The random changes in DNA sequences creating new alleles.

Genetic drift exerts a particularly strong effect in small populations, such as those that colonize islands or or the few individuals that remain after large-scale disruptions (e.g. earthquakes, fire). You are already familiar with the statistical principle (sampling bias) underlying this: the random loss of 20 iguanas from a large population of 1 million iguanas is bound to result in a smaller impact on allele frequencies than the random loss of 20 iguanas from an island population of 100 iguanas. Genetic drift occurs because the alleles in an offspring generation are a random sample of the alleles in the parent generation. Alleles may or may not make it into the next generation due to chance events including mortality of an individual, events affecting finding a mate, and even the events affecting which gametes end up in fertilizations. If one individual in a population of ten individuals happens to die before it leaves any offspring to the next generation, all of its genes—a tenth of the population’s gene pool—will be suddenly lost. In a population of 100, that 1 individual represents only 1 percent of the overall gene pool; therefore, it has much less impact on the population’s genetic structure and is unlikely to remove all copies of even a relatively rare allele.

Imagine a population of ten haploid individuals, half with allele A and half with allele a. In a stable population, the next generation will also have ten individuals. Choose that generation randomly by flipping a coin ten times and let heads be A and tails be a. It is unlikely that the next generation will have exactly half of each allele. There might be six of one and four of the other, or some different set of frequencies. Thus, the allele frequencies have changed and evolution has occurred. A coin will no longer work to choose the next generation (because the odds are no longer one half for each allele). The frequency in each generation will drift up and down on what is known as a random walk until at one point either all A or all a are chosen and that allele is fixed from that point on. This could take a very long time for a large population. This simplification is not very biological, but simulations and studies have shown that real populations behave this way. The effect of drift on frequencies is greater the smaller a population is. Its effect is also greater on an allele with a frequency far from one half. Genetic drift causes random changes in allele frequencies and these changes are larger when populations are small.

Reading Question #4

Where would you expect genetic drift to exert the strongest effects?

A. On an island with a small population.
B. On the mainland with a large population.
C. Genetic drift would have the same strength in both populations.

Bottleneck effect

Natural events, such as an earthquake that randomly kills a large portion of the population, can magnify the effects of genetic drift. These situations, where a large portion of the gene pool is suddenly and randomly eliminated, is called the bottleneck effect(Fig 5.2). At once, the survivors’ genetic structure (i.e., allele frequencies) becomes the entire population’s genetic structure, which may be very different from the pre-disaster population. Almost certainly rare alleles are lost from the population, resulting in a decrease in the variability in the population. The survivors reproduce to create the next generation, which can have dramatically different allele frequencies compared to the population before the bottleneck event occurred. Bottleneck effects are a special case of genetic drift where the effects of drift are particularly strong because a population’s size has been dramatically reduced.

Figure 5.2 A chance event or catastrophe that dramatically reduces the population size can dramatically alter the allele frequencies in the population. (Credit)

Founder Effect

Another scenario in which populations might experience a strong influence of genetic drift is if some portion of the population leaves to start a new population in a new location. It is likely that the small number of individuals who found the new population have different allele frequencies than the entire population due to random chance (sampling error). Thus, the new population can end up having very different allele frequencies than the original source population due to genetic drift – this is called the founder effect.

Reading Question #5

Which of the following are mechanisms of evolution? Select all that apply.

A. Acquired traits
B. Natural selection
C. Genetic drift
D. Gene flow
E. Mutation


Adapted from:

Clark, M.A., Douglas, M., and Choi, J. (2018). Biology 2e. OpenStax. Retrieved from https://openstax.org/books/biology-2e/pages/1-introduction


Fowler, S., Roush, R., & Wise, J. (2022). NSCC Academic Biology 1050. Nova Scotia Community College. Retrived from https://pressbooks.nscc.ca/biology1050/



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Introductory Biology 2 Copyright © 2023 by Anastasia Chouvalova and Lisa Limeri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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