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Mutational meltdown (not to be confused with the concept of an error catastrophe) is the accumulation of harmful mutations in a small population, which leads to loss of fitness and decline of the population size, which may lead to further accumulation of deleterious mutations due to fixation by genetic drift.
A population experiencing mutational meltdown is trapped in a downward spiral and will go extinct if the phenomenon lasts for some time. Usually, the deleterious mutations would simply be selected away, but during mutational meltdown, the number of individuals thus suffering an early death is too large relative to overall population size so that mortality exceeds the birth rate.
The accumulation of mutations in small populations can be divided into three phases. In the second phase a population starts in mutation/selection equilibrium, mutations are fixed at a constant rate through time, and the population size is constant because the fecundity exceeds mortality. However, after a sufficient number of mutations have been fixed in the population, the birth rate is slightly less than the death rate, and the population size begins to decrease. The smaller population size allows for a more rapid fixation of deleterious mutations, and a more rapid decline of population size, etc.
- W. Gabriel, M. Lynch, and R. Burger (1993). Muller's Ratchet and mutational meltdowns. Evolution 47:1744-1757.
- M. Lynch, R. Burger, D. Butcher, and W. Gabriel (1993). The mutational meltdown in asexual populations. J. Hered. 84:339-344.
- M. Lynch and W. Gabriel (1990). Mutation load and the survival of small populations. Evolution 44:1725-1737.
- M. Lynch, J. Conery, and R. Burger (1995) Mutational meltdowns in sexual populations. Evolution 49:1067-1080.