Why overdominance probably isn’t responsible for much polymorphism

Hybrid vigor is a concept that many people have heard of, because it is very useful in agricultural genetics, and makes some intuitive sense. Unfortunately it often gets deployed in a variety of contexts, and its applicability is often overestimated. For example, many people seem to think (from personal communication) that it may somehow be responsible for the genetic variation around us.

This is just not so. As you may know each human carries tens of millions of genetic variants within their genome. Populations have various levels of polymorphism at particular positions in the genome. How’d they get there? In the early days of population genetics there were two broad schools, the “balance” and “classical.” The former made the case for the importance of balancing selection in maintaining variation. The latter suggested that the variation we see around us is simply a transient between fixation of a favored mutation from a low a frequency or extinction of a disfavored variant (perhaps environmental conditions changed and a high frequency variant is now disfavored). Arguably the rise of neutral theory and empirical results from molecular evolution supported the classical model more than the balance framework (at least this was Richard Lewontin’s argument, and I follow his logic here).

But even in relation to alleles which are maintained at polymorphism through balancing selection, overdominance isn’t going to be the major player.

Sickle cell disease is a classic consequence of overdominance; the heterozygote is more fit than the wild type or the recessive disease which is caused by homozygotes of the mutation. Obviously polymorphism is maintained despite the decreased fitness of the mutant homozygote because the heterozygote is so much more fit than the wild type. The final proportion of the alleles segregating in the population will be conditional on the fitness drag of the homozygote in the mutant type, because as per HWE it will be present in the population ~q2.

The problem is that this is clearly not going to scale across loci. That is, even if the fitness drag is more minimal than is the case with the sickle cell locus, one can imagine a cummulative situation. The segregation load is just going to be too high. Overdominance is probably a transient strategy which fades away as populations evolve more efficient ways to adapt that doesn’t have such a fitness load.

So how does balancing selection still lead to variation without heteroygote advantage? W. D. Hamilton argued that much of it was due to negative frequency dependent selection. Co-evolution with pathogens is the best case of this. As strategies get common pathogens adapt, so rare strategies encoded by rare alleles gain in fitness. As these alleles increase in frequency their fitness decreases due to pathogen resistance. Their frequency declines, and eventually the pathogens lose the ability to resist it, and its frequency increases again.