How do deleterious mutations interact to affect fitness? The answer to this question has substantial implications for a variety of important problems in population biology, including the evolution of sex1,2,3, the rate of adaptation4,5 and the conservation of small populations3,6,7,8. Here we analyse a mathematical model of competition for food in which deleterious mutations affect competitive ability. We show that, if individuals usually compete in small groups, then competition can easily lead to a type of genetic interaction known as synergistic epistasis. This means that a deleterious mutation is most damaging in a genome that already has many other deleterious mutations. We also show that competition in small groups can produce a large advantage for sexual populations, both in mean fitness and in ability to resist invasion by asexual lineages. One implication of our findings is that experimental efforts to demonstrate synergistic epistasis may not succeed unless the experiments are redesigned to make them much more naturalistic.
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We thank J. Crow, A. Eyre-Walker, A. Kondrashov and J. Maynard Smith for advice. This study was supported by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (UK).
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Peck, J., Waxman, D. Mutation and sex in a competitive world. Nature 406, 399–404 (2000). https://doi.org/10.1038/35019055
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