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Untangling the Evolution of a Balanced Lethal System

Project description

Fooling natural selection

Balanced lethal systems are bizarre because they cut reproductive potential in half. Something so maladaptive should not evolve, but balanced lethal systems are known in both plants and animals. The EU-funded BALANCED LETHALS project is trying to solve this evolutionary enigma. Supergenes, multiple tightly linked loci that encode discrete phenotypes, may be the key. Supergenes have short-term benefits, but on the long term might put natural selection in a stranglehold.


Natural selection is supposed to keep lethal alleles (dysfunctional or deleted copies of crucial genes) in check. Yet, in a balanced lethal system the frequency of lethal alleles is inflated. Because two forms of a chromosome carry distinct lethal alleles that are reciprocally compensated for by functional genes on the alternate chromosome form, both chromosome forms – and in effect their linked lethal alleles – are required for survival. The inability of natural selection to purge balanced lethal systems appears to defy evolutionary theory. How do balanced lethal systems originate and persist in nature? I suspect the answer to this pressing but neglected research question can be found in the context of supergenes in a balanced polymorphism – a current, hot topic in evolutionary biology. Chromosome rearrangements can lock distinct beneficial sets of alleles (i.e. supergenes) on two chromosome forms by suppressing recombination. Now, balancing selection would favour possession of both supergenes. However, as a consequence of suppressed recombination, unique lethal alleles could become fixed on each supergene, with natural selection powerless to prevent collapse of the arrangement into a balanced lethal system. I aim to explain the evolution of balanced lethal systems in nature. As empirical example I will use chromosome 1 syndrome, a balanced lethal system observed in newts of the genus Triturus. My research team will: Reconstruct the genomic architecture of this balanced lethal system at its point of origin [PI project]; Conduct comparative genomics with related, unaffected species [PhD project]; Determine gene order of the two supergenes involved [Postdoc project I]; and Model the conditions under which this balanced lethal system could theoretically have evolved [Postdoc project II]. Solving the paradox of chromosome 1 syndrome will allow us to understand balanced lethal systems in general and address the challenges they pose to evolutionary theory.



Net EU contribution
€ 1 499 869,00
Rapenburg 70
2311 EZ Leiden

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West-Nederland Zuid-Holland Agglomeratie Leiden en Bollenstreek
Activity type
Higher or Secondary Education Establishments
Other funding
€ 0,00

Beneficiaries (1)