DNA and the Neutral Theory

M. Kimura

Abstract

The neutral theory claims that the great majority of evolutionary changes at the molecular (DNA) level are caused not by Darwinian selection but by random fixation of selectively neutral or nearly neutral mutants. The theory also asserts that the majority of protein and DNA polymorphisms are selectively neutral and that they are maintained in the species by mutational input balanced by random extinction. In conjunction with diffusion models (the stochastic theory) of gene frequencies in finite populations, it treats these phenomena in quantitative terms based on actual observations. Although the theory has been strongly criticized by the `selectionists', supporting evidence has accumulated over the years. Particularly, the recent outburst of DNA sequence data lends strong support to the theory both with respect to evolutionary base substitutions and DNA polymorphism, including rapid evolutionary base substitutions in pseudogenes. In addition, the observed pattern of synonymous codon choice can now be readily explained in the framework of this theory. I review these recent findings in the light of the neutral theory.