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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Impacts of mutation effects and population size on mutation rate in asexual populations: a simulation study

Xiaoqian Jiang12, Baolin Mu3, Zhuoran Huang12, Mingjing Zhang12, Xiaojuan Wang12 and Shiheng Tao12*

Author Affiliations

1 Bioinformatics center, Northwest A&F University, Yangling, Shaanxi, 712100, China

2 College of Life Science, Northwest A&F University, Yangling, Shaanxi, 712100, China

3 College of Information Engineering, Northwest A&F University, Yangling, Shaanxi, 712100, China

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2010, 10:298  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-10-298

Published: 30 September 2010



In any natural population, mutation is the primary source of genetic variation required for evolutionary novelty and adaptation. Nevertheless, most mutations, especially those with phenotypic effects, are harmful and are consequently removed by natural selection. For this reason, under natural selection, an organism will evolve to a lower mutation rate. Overall, the action of natural selection on mutation rate is related to population size and mutation effects. Although theoretical work has intensively investigated the relationship between natural selection and mutation rate, most of these studies have focused on individual competition within a population, rather than on competition among populations. The aim of the present study was to use computer simulations to investigate how natural selection adjusts mutation rate among asexually reproducing subpopulations with different mutation rates.


The competition results for the different subpopulations showed that a population could evolve to an "optimum" mutation rate during long-term evolution, and that this rate was modulated by both population size and mutation effects. A larger population could evolve to a higher optimum mutation rate than could a smaller population. The optimum mutation rate depended on both the fraction and the effects of beneficial mutations, rather than on the effects of deleterious ones. The optimum mutation rate increased with either the fraction or the effects of beneficial mutations. When strongly favored mutations appeared, the optimum mutation rate was elevated to a much higher level. The competition time among the subpopulations also substantially shortened.


Competition at the population level revealed that the evolution of the mutation rate in asexual populations was determined by both population size and mutation effects. The most striking finding was that beneficial mutations, rather than deleterious mutations, were the leading force that modulated the optimum mutation rate. The initial configuration of the population appeared to have no effect on these conclusions, confirming the robustness of the simulation method developed in the present study. These findings might further explain the lower mutation rates observed in most asexual organisms, as well as the higher mutation rates in some viruses.