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Artificial selection is the intentional breeding for certain traits, or combinations of traits, over others. It was originally defined by Charles Darwin in contrast to the process of natural selection, in which the differential reproduction of organisms with certain traits is attributed to improved survival and/or reproductive ability ("Darwinian fitness") in the natural habitat of the organism. Artificial selection that produces an undesirable outcome from a human perspective is sometimes called negative selection (but note that this term has a better-established meaning as a type of natural selection; see negative selection). Artificial selection can also be unintentional; it is thought that domestication of crops by early humans was largely unintentional.
Charles Darwin coined the term as an illustration of his proposed wider process of natural selection. Darwin noted that many domesticated animals and plants had special properties that were developed by intentionally encouraging the breeding potential of individuals who both possessed desirable characteristics, and discouraging the breeding of individuals who had less desirable characteristics.
Contrast to natural selection
It should be emphasized that there is no real difference in the genetic processes underlying artificial and natural selection, and that the concept of artificial selection was first introduced as an illustration of the wider process of natural selection. The selection process is termed "artificial" when human preferences or influences have a significant effect on the evolution of a particular population or species. Indeed, many evolutionary biologists view domestication as a type of natural selection and adaptive change that occurs as organisms are brought under the control of human beings.
The deliberate exploitation of selective power has become common in experimental biology, particularly in microbiology and genetics. In a ubiquitous laboratory technique in genetic engineering, genes are introduced into cells in cell culture, usually bacteria, on a small circular DNA molecule called a plasmid in a process called transfection. The gene of interest is accompanied on the plasmid by a reporter gene, or "selectable marker", which encodes a specific trait such as antibiotic resistance or ability to grow in high salt concentrations. The cells can then be cultured in an environment that would kill normal cells, but is hospitable to those that have taken up and expressed the genes on the plasmid. In this way expression of the reporter gene serves as a signal that the gene of interest is also being expressed in the cells.
Another technique used in drug development uses an iterative selective process called in vitro selection to evolve aptamers, or nucleic acid fragments capable of binding specific organic compounds with high binding affinity.
Studies in evolutionary physiology, behavioral genetics, and other areas of organismal biology have also made use of deliberate artificial selection, though longer generation times and greater difficulty in breeding can make such projects challenging in vertebrates.
Online experiments in artificial selection
- Artificial Selection powerpoint, University of Wisconsin-Madison
- Swallow JG, Garland T. (2005). Selection experiments as a tool in evolutionary and comparative physiology: insights into complex traits—an introduction to the symposium. Integr Comp Biol, 45:387–390.PDF
- Garland T. (2003). Selection experiments: an under-utilized tool in biomechanics and organismal biology. Ch.3, Vertebrate Biomechanics and Evolution ed. Bels VL, Gasc JP, Casinos A. PDF