Deleterious mutation accumulation in organelle genomes

Michael Lynch, Jeffrey L. Blanchard

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

140 Scopus citations


It is well established on theoretical grounds that the accumulation of mildly deleterious mutations in nonrecombining genomes is a major extinction risk in obligately asexual populations. Sexual populations can also incur mutational deterioration in genomic regions that experience little or no recombination, i.e., autosomal regions near centromeres, Y chromosomes, and organelle genomes. Our results suggest, for a wide array of genes (transfer RNAs, ribosomal RNAs, and proteins) in a diverse collection of species (animals, plants, and fungi), an almost universal increase in the fixation probabilities of mildly deleterious mutations arising in mitochondrial and chloroplast genomes relative to those arising in the recombining nuclear genome. This enhanced width of the selective sieve in organelle genomes does not appear to be a consequence of relaxed selection, but can be explained by the decline in the efficiency of selection that results from the reduction of effective population size induced by uniparental inheritance. Because of the very low mutation rates of organelle genomes (on the order of 10-4 per genome per year), the reduction in fitness resulting from mutation accumulation in such genomes is a very long-term process, not likely to imperil many species on time scales of less than a million years, but perhaps playing some role in phylogenetic lineage sorting on time scales of 10 to 100 million years.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)29-39
Number of pages11
StatePublished - 1998
Externally publishedYes


  • Chloroplast genome
  • Deleterious mutation
  • Mitochondrial genome
  • Muller's ratchet
  • Ribosomal RNA
  • Transfer RNA

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Animal Science and Zoology
  • Genetics
  • Plant Science
  • Insect Science


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