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The Importance Of The Environment

A disadvantageous trait in one environment may be advantageous in a very different environment. A classic example of this is sickle cell disease in regions where malaria is common. Individuals who inherit a copy of the sickle cell gene from both of their parents (homozygotes) die early from the disease, whereas heterozygotes (individuals who inherit only one copy of the gene) are favored in malarial areas (including equatorial Africa) over those without any copies, because they contract milder cases of malaria and thus are more likely to survive it.

Even though homozygotes rarely pass on their genes, because of their low likelihood of surviving to reproduce, the advantage of having one copy is high enough that natural selection continues to favor presence of the gene in these populations. Thus a malarial environment can keep the gene frequency high. However, in temperate regions where malaria is absent (such as North America), there is no heterozygote advantage to the sickle cell gene. Because heterozygotes still suffer from the disease, they are less likely to survive and reproduce. Thus, selection is gradually depleting the gene from the African American population that harbors it.

Additional topics

Medicine EncyclopediaGenetics in Medicine - Part 4Selection - Types Of Selection, Variation, The Importance Of The Environment, Artificial Selection, Selection In Humans