In small or repeatedly bottlenecked populations, mutations are expected to accumulate by genetic drift, causing fitness declines. In mutational meltdown models, such fitness declines further reduce population size, thus accelerating additional mutation accumulation and leading to extinction. Because the rate of mutation accumulation is determined partly by the mutation rate, the risk and rate of meltdown are predicted to increase with increasing mutation rate. We established 12 replicate populations of Saccharomyces cerevisiae from each of two isogenic strains whose genomewide mutation rates differ by approximately two orders of magnitude. Each population was transferred daily by a fixed dilution that resulted in an effective population size near 250. Fitness declines that reduce growth rates were expected to reduce the numbers of cells transferred after dilution, thus reducing population size and leading to mutational meltdown. Through 175 daily transfers and approximately 2900 generations, two extinctions occurred, both in populations with elevated mutation rates. For one of these populations there is direct evidence that extinction resulted from mutational meltdown: Extinction immediately followed a major fitness decline, and it recurred consistently in replicate populations reestablished from a sample frozen after this fitness decline, but not in populations founded from a predecline sample. Wild-type populations showed no trend to decrease in size and, on average, they increased in fitness.
Corresponding Editor: A. Caballero