Recall that a gene for a particular character may have several alleles, or variants, that code for different traits associated with that character. For example, in the ABO blood type system in humans, three alleles determine the particular blood-type protein on the surface of red blood cells.
Each individual in a population of diploid organisms can only carry two alleles for a particular gene, but more than two may be present in the individuals that make up the population. Mendel followed alleles as they were inherited from parent to offspring. In the early twentieth century, biologists in a field of study known as population genetics began to study how selective forces change a population through changes in allele and genotypic frequencies.
The allele frequency (or gene frequency) is the rate at which a specific allele appears within a population. Until now we have discussed evolution as a change in the characteristics of a population of organisms, but behind that phenotypic change is genetic change. In population genetics, the term evolution is defined as a change in the frequency of an allele in a population. Using the ABO blood type system as an example, the frequency of one of the alleles, IA, is the number of copies of that allele divided by all the copies of the ABO gene in the population. For example, a study in Jordan found a frequency of IA to be 26.1 percent. The IB and I0 alleles made up 13.4 percent and 60.5 percent of the alleles respectively, and all of the frequencies added up to 100 percent. A change in this frequency over time would constitute evolution in the population.
The allele frequency within a given population can change depending on environmental factors; therefore, certain alleles become more widespread than others during the process of natural selection. Natural selection can alter the population’s genetic makeup; for example, if a given allele confers a phenotype that allows an individual to better survive or have more offspring. Because many of those offspring will also carry the beneficial allele, and often the corresponding phenotype, they will have more offspring of their own that also carry the allele, thus, perpetuating the cycle.
Over time, the allele will spread throughout the population. Some alleles will quickly become fixed in this way, meaning that every individual of the population will carry the allele, while detrimental mutations may be swiftly eliminated if derived from a dominant allele from the gene pool. The gene pool is the sum of all the alleles in a population.
Sometimes, allele frequencies within a population change randomly with no advantage to the population over existing allele frequencies. This phenomenon is called genetic drift. Natural selection and genetic drift usually occur simultaneously in populations and are not isolated events. It is hard to determine which process dominates because it is often nearly impossible to determine the cause of change in allele frequencies at each occurrence. An event that initiates an allele frequency change in an isolated part of the population, which is not typical of the original population, is called the founder effect. Natural selection, random drift, and founder effects can lead to significant changes in the genome of a population.