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In population genetics, gene flow (also known as gene migration) is the transfer of alleles of genes from one population to another.

Migration into or out of a population may be responsible for a marked change in allele frequencies (the proportion of members carrying a particular variant of a gene). Immigration may also result in the addition of new genetic variants to the established gene pool of a particular species or population.

There are a number of factors that affect the rate of gene flow between different populations. One of the most significant factors is mobility, as greater mobility of an individual tends to give it greater migratory potential. Animals tend to be more mobile than plants, although pollen and seeds may be carried great distances by animals or wind.

Maintained gene flow between two populations can also lead to a combination of the two gene pools, reducing the genetic variation between the two groups. It is for this reason that gene flow strongly acts against speciation, by recombining the gene pools of the groups, and thus, repairing the developing differences in genetic variation that would have led to full speciation and creation of daughter species.

For example, if a species of grass grows on both sides of a highway, pollen is likely to be transported from one side to the other and vice versa. If this pollen is able to fertilise the plant where it ends up and produce viable offspring, then the alleles in the pollen have effectively been able to move from the population on one side of the highway to the other.

Barrier to gene flow

Physical barriers to gene flow are usually, but not always, natural. They may include impassable mountain ranges, oceans, or vast deserts. In some cases, they can be artificial, man-made barriers, such as the Great Wall of China, which has hindered the gene flow of native plant populations. Samples of the same species which grow on either side have been shown to have developed genetic differences, because there is little to no gene flow to provide recombination of the gene pools.

Barriers to gene flow need not always to be physical. Species can live in the same environment, yet show very limited gene flow due to limited hybridization or hybridization yielding unfit hybrids.

Gene flow in humans

Gene flow has been observed in humans. For example, in the United Statesmarker, gene flow was observed between a white European population and a black West African population, which were recently brought together. In West Africa, where malaria is prevalent, the Duffy antigen provides some resistance to the disease, and this allele is thus present in nearly all of the West African population. In contrast, Europeans have either the allele Fya or Fyb, because malaria is almost non-existent. By measuring the frequencies of the West African and European groups, scientists found that the allele frequencies became mixed in each population because of movement of individuals. It was also found that this gene flow between European and West African groups is much greater in the Northern U.S. than in the South.

Gene flow between species

Gene flow can occur between species, either through hybridization or gene transfer from bacteria or virus to new hosts.

Gene transfer, defined as the movement of genetic material across species boundaries, which includes horizontal gene transfer, antigenic shift, and reassortment is sometimes an important source of genetic variation. Viruses can transfer genes between species [41217]. Bacteria can incorporate genes from other dead bacteria, exchange genes with living bacteria, and can exchange plasmids across species boundaries [41218]."Sequence comparisons suggest recent horizontal transfer of many genes among diverse species including across the boundaries of phylogenetic "domains". Thus determining the phylogenetic history of a species can not be done conclusively by determining evolutionary trees for single genes." [41219]

Biologist Gogarten suggests "the original metaphor of a tree no longer fits the data from recent genome research". Biologists [should] instead use the metaphor of a mosaic to describe the different histories combined in individual genomes and use the metaphor of an intertwined net to visualize the rich exchange and cooperative effects of horizontal gene transfer. [41220]

"Using single genes as phylogenetic markers, it is difficult to trace organismal phylogeny in the presence of HGT [horizontal gene transfer]. Combining the simple coalescence model of cladogenesis with rare HGT [horizontal gene transfer] events suggest there was no single last common ancestor that contained all of the genes ancestral to those shared among the three domains of life. Each contemporary molecule has its own history and traces back to an individual molecule cenancestor. However, these molecular ancestors were likely to be present in different organisms at different times." [41221]

Genetic pollution

Purebred, naturally-evolved, region-specific, wild species can be threatened with extinction in a big way through the process of genetic pollution, i.e., uncontrolled hybridization, introgression and genetic swamping which leads to homogenization or replacement of local genotypes as a result of either a numerical and/or fitness advantage of introduced plant or animal. Nonnative species can bring about a form of extinction of native plants and animals by hybridization and introgression either through purposeful introduction by humans or through habitat modification, bringing previously isolated species into contact. These phenomena can be especially detrimental for rare species coming into contact with more abundant ones where the abundant ones can interbreed with them swamping the entire rarer gene pool creating hybrids thus driving the entire original purebred native stock to complete extinction. Attention has to be focused on the extent of this under appreciated problem that is not always apparent from morphological (outward appearance) observations alone. Some degree of gene flow may be a normal, evolutionarily constructive process, and all constellations of genes and genotypes cannot be preserved however, hybridization with or without introgression may, nevertheless, threaten a rare species' existence.

Models of gene flow

Models of gene flow can be derived from population genetics, e.g. Sewall Wright's neighborhood model, Wright's island model and the stepping stone model.

Gene flow mitigation

When cultivating genetically modified (GM) plants or livestock, it becomes necessary to prevent "genetic pollution" i.e. their genetic modification from reaching other conventionally hybridized or wild native plant and animal populations by using gene flow mitigation usually through unintentional cross pollination and crossbreeding. Reasons to limit gene flow may include biosafety or agricultural co-existence, in which GM and non-GM cropping systems work side by side.

Scientists in several large research programmes are investigating methods of limiting gene flow in plants. Among these programmes are Transcontainer, which investigates methods for biocontainment, SIGMEA, which focuses on the biosafety of genetically modified plants, and Co-Extra, which studies the co-existence of GM and non-GM product chains.

Generally, there are three approaches to gene flow mitigation: keeping the genetic modification out of the pollen, preventing the formation of pollen, and keeping the pollen inside the flower.

  • The first approach requires transplastomic plants. In transplastomic plants, the modified DNA is not situated in the cell's nucleus but is present in plastids, which are cellular compartments outside the nucleus. An example for plastids are chloroplasts, in which photosynthesis occurs. In some plants, the pollen does not contain plastids and, consequently, any modification located in plastids cannot be transmitted by the pollen.
  • The second approach relies on male sterile plants. Male sterile plants are unable to produce functioning flowers and therefore cannot release viable pollen. Cytoplasmic male sterile plants are known to produce higher yields. Therefore, researchers are trying to introduce this trait to genetically modified crops.
  • The third approach works by preventing the flowers from opening. This trait is called cleistogamy and occurs naturally in some plants. Cleistogamous plants produce flowers which either open only partly or not at all. However, it remains unclear how reliable cleistogamy is for gene flow mitigation: a Co-Extra research project on rapeseed investigating the matter has published preliminary results which cast doubt on the attainment of a high degree of reliability.

See also

External links


  • Su, H et al. (2003) "The Great Wall of China: a physical barrier to gene flow?." Heredity, Volume 9 Pages 212-219

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