Spontaneous mutation to mildly deleterious alleles has emerged as a potentially unifying component of a variety of observations in evolutionary genetics and molecular evolution. However, the biological significance of hypotheses based on mildly deleterious mutation depends critically on the rate at which new mutations arise and on their average effects. A long-term mutation-accumulation experiment with replicate lines of the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans maintained by single-progeny descent indicates that recurrent spontaneous mutation causes approximately 0.1% decline in fitness per generation, which is about an order of magnitude less than that suggested by previous studies with Drosophila. Two rather different approaches, Bateman-Mukai and maximum likelihood, suggest that this observation, along with the observed rate of increase in the variance of fitness among lines, is consistent with a genomic deleterious mutation rate for fitness of approximately 0.03 per generation and with an average homozygous effect of approximately 12%. The distribution of mutational effects for fitness appears to have a relatively low coefficient of variation, being no more extreme than expected for a negative exponential, and for one composite fitness measure (total progeny production) approaches constancy of effects. These results are derived from assays in a benign environment. At stressful temperatures, estimates of the genomic deleterious mutation rate (for genes expressed at such temperatures) is sixfold lower, whereas those for the average homozygous effect is approximately eightfold higher. Our results are reasonably compatible with existing estimates for flies, when one considers the differences between these species in the number of germ-line cell divisions per generation and the magnitude of transposable element activity.
Corresponding Editor: A. Caballero