The Spontaneity of Mutations by@isaacasimov

The Spontaneity of Mutations

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Mutations that take place in the ordinary course of nature, without man’s interference, are spontaneous mutations. Most of these arise out of the very nature of the complicated mechanism of gene replication. Copies of genes are formed out of a large number of small units that must be lined up in just the right pattern to form one particular gene and no other. Ideally, matters are so arranged within the cell that the necessary changes giving rise to the desired pattern are just those that have a maximum probability. Other changes are less likely to happen but are not absolutely excluded. Sometimes through the accidental jostling of molecules a wrong turn may be taken, and the result is a spontaneous mutation.

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Isaac Asimov

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The Genetic Effects of Radiation by Isaac Asimov is part of HackerNoon’s Book Blog Post Series. The Table of Links for this book can be found here. Mutations - Spontaneous Mutations

Spontaneous Mutations

Mutations that take place in the ordinary course of nature, without man’s interference, are spontaneous mutations. Most of these arise out of the very nature of the complicated mechanism of gene replication. Copies of genes are formed out of a large number of small units that must be lined up in just the right pattern to form one particular gene and no other.

Ideally, matters are so arranged within the cell that the necessary changes giving rise to the desired pattern are just those that have a maximum probability. Other changes are less likely to happen but are not absolutely excluded. Sometimes through the accidental jostling of molecules a wrong turn may be taken, and the result is a spontaneous mutation.

We might consider a mutation to be either “good” or “bad” in the sense that any change that helps a creature live more easily and comfortably is good and that the reverse is bad.

It seems reasonable that random changes in the gene pattern are almost sure to be bad. Consider that any creature, including man, is the product of millions of years of evolution. In every generation those individuals with a gene pattern that fit them better for their environment won out over those with less effective patterns—won out in the race for food, for mates, and for safety. The “more fit” had more offspring and crowded out the “less fit”.

By now, then, the set of genes with which we are normally equipped is the end product of long ages of such natural selection. A random change cannot be expected to improve it any more than random changes would improve any very complex, intricate, and delicate structure.

image

Evolution of the horse (skull, hindfoot, and forefoot shown). Note the changes over a 60-million-year period from the Eocene era to the present.

  • Pleistocene and Recent
  • Pliocene
  • Miocene
  • Oligocene
  • Eocene

Yet over the eons, creatures have indeed changed, largely through the effects of mutation. If mutations are almost always for the worse, how can one explain that evolution seems to progress toward the better and that out of a primitive form as simple as an amoeba, for instance, there eventually emerged man?

In the first place, environment is not fixed. Climate changes, conditions change, the food supply may change, the nature of living enemies may change. A gene pattern that is very useful under one set of conditions may be less useful under another.

Suppose, for instance, that man had lived in tropical areas for thousands of years and had developed a heavily pigmented skin as a protection against sunburn. Any child who, through a mutation, found himself incapable of forming much pigment, would be at a severe disadvantage in the outdoor activities engaged in by his tribe. He would not do well and such a mutated gene would never establish itself for long.

If a number of these men migrated to northern Europe, however, children with dark skin would absorb insufficient sunlight during the long winter when the sun was low in the sky, and visible for brief periods only. Dark-skinned children would, under such conditions, tend to suffer from rickets.

Mutant children with pale skin would absorb more of what weak sunlight there was and would suffer less. There would be little danger of sunburn so there would be no penalty counteracting this new advantage of pale skins. It would be the dark-skinned people who would tend to die out. In the end, you would have dark skins in Africa and pale skins in Scandinavia, and both would be “fit”.

In the same way, any child born into a primitive hunting society who found himself with a mutated gene that brought about nearsightedness would be at a distinct disadvantage. In a modern technological society, however, nearsighted individuals, doing more poorly at outdoor games, are often driven into quieter activities that involve reading, thinking, and studying. This may lead to a career as a scientist, scholar, or professional man, categories that are valuable in such a society and are encouraged. Nearsightedness would therefore spread more generally through civilized societies than through primitive ones.

Then, too, a gene may be advantageous when it occurs in low numbers and disadvantageous when it occurs in high numbers. Suppose there were a gene among humans that so affected the personality as to make it difficult for a human being to endure crowded conditions. Such individuals would make good explorers, farmers, and herdsmen, but poor city dwellers. Even in our modern urbanized society, such a gene in moderate concentration would be good, since we still need our outdoorsmen. In high concentration, it would be bad, for then the existence of areas of high population density (on which our society now seems to depend) might become impossible.

In any species, then, each gene exists in a number of varieties upon which an absolute “good” or “bad” cannot be unequivocally stamped. These varieties make up the gene pool, and it is this gene pool that makes evolution possible.

A species with an invariable set of genes could not change to suit altered conditions. Even a slight shift in the nature of the environment might suffice to wipe it out.

The possession of a gene pool lends flexibility, however. As conditions change, one combination of varieties might gain over another and this, in turn, might produce changes in body characteristics that would then further alter the relative “goodness” or “badness” of certain gene patterns.

Thus, over the past million years, for example, the human brain has, through mutations and appropriate shifts in emphasis within the gene pool, increased notably in size.

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This book is part of the public domain. Asimov, Isaac. (October 13, 2017). THE GENETIC EFFECTS OF RADIATION. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved June 2022, from https://www.gutenberg.org/files/55738/55738-h/55738-h.htm#c8

This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever.  You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License included with this eBook or online at www.gutenberg.org, located at https://www.gutenberg.org/policy/license.html.

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