Elena, S. F., and R. E. Lenski. 1997. Long-term experimental evolution in Escherichia coli. VII. Mechanisms maintaining genetic variability within populations. Evolution 51:1058-1067.
Six replicate populations of the bacterium Escherichia coli were propagated for more than 10,000 generations in a defined environment. We sought to quantify the variation among clones within these populations with respect to their relative fitness, and to evaluate the roles of three distinct population genetic processes in maintaining this variation. On average, a pair of clones from the same population differed from one another in their relative fitness by approximately 4%. This within-population variation was small compared with the average fitness gain relative to the common ancestor, but it was statistically significant. According to one hypothesis, the variation in fitness is transient and reflects the ongoing substitution of beneficial alleles. We used Fisher's fundamental theorem to compare the observed rate of each population's change in mean fitness with the extent of variation for fitness within that population, but we failed to discern any correspondence between these quantities. A second hypothesis supposes that the variation in fitness is maintained by recurrent deleterious mutations that give rise to a mutation-selection balance. To test this hypothesis, we made use of the fact that two of the sh replicate populations had evolved mutator phenotypes, which gave them a genomic mutation rate approximately 100-fold higher than that of the other populations. There was a marginally significant correlation between a population's mutation rate and the extent of its within-population variance for fitness, but this correlation was driven by only one population (whereas two of the populations had elevated mutation rates). Under a third hypothesis, this variation is maintained by frequency-dependent selection, whereby genotypes have an advantage when they are rare relative to when they are common. in all six populations, clones were more fit, on average, when they were rare than when they were common, although the magnitude of the advantage when rare was usually small ( similar to 1% in five populations and similar to 5% in the other). These three hypotheses are not mutually exclusive, but frequency-dependent selection appears to be the primary force maintaining the fitness variation within these experimental populations.