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Experimental evolution is the use of laboratory experiments or controlled field manipulations to explore evolutionary dynamics. Evolution may be observed in the laboratory as individuals/populations adapt to new environmental conditions by natural selection.
There are two different ways in which adaptation can arise in experimental evolution. One is via an individual organism gaining a novel beneficial mutation. The other is from allele frequency change in standing genetic variation already present in a population of organisms. Other evolutionary forces outside of mutation and natural selection can also play a role or be incorporated into experimental evolution studies, such as genetic drift and gene flow.
The organism used is decided by the experimenter, based on the hypothesis to be tested. Many generations are required for adaptive mutation to occur, and experimental evolution via mutation is carried out in viruses or unicellular organisms with rapid generation times, such as bacteria and asexual clonal yeast. Polymorphic populations of asexual or sexual yeast, and multicellular eukaryotes like Drosophila, can adapt to new environments through allele frequency change in standing genetic variation. Organisms with longer generations times, although costly, can be used in experimental evolution. Laboratory studies with foxes and with rodents (see below) have shown that notable adaptations can occur within as few as 10–20 generations and experiments with wild guppies have observed adaptations within comparable numbers of generations.
More recently, experimentally evolved individuals or populations are often analyzed using whole genome sequencing, an approach known as Evolve and Resequence (E&R). E&R can identify mutations that lead to adaptation in clonal individuals or identify alleles that changed in frequency in polymorphic populations, by comparing the sequences of individuals/populations before and after adaptation. The sequence data makes it possible to pinpoint the site in a DNA sequence that a mutation/allele frequency change occurred to bring about adaptation. The nature of the adaptation and functional follow up studies can shed insight into what effect the mutation/allele has on phenotype.
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