Theory predicts a significant relationship between the size of a population and the magnitude and composition of its genetic load, but few natural populations have been investigated. We examined the magnitude of genetic load due to recessive deleterious alleles (GL) both segregating and fixed within Gentianella germanica populations of varying size by selfing and reciprocally crossing plants within and between natural populations according to a partial diallel design and by comparing the performance of the experimental progeny in a common-garden experiment. The results show that GL for total fitness in small populations (fewer than 200 plants) was mainly due to fixed recessive deleterious alleles, whereas GL for total fitness in larger populations (more than 200 plants) appeared to be mainly due to segregating deleterious recessive alleles. The total fitness of selfed plants increased with decreasing population size, indicating some purging of deleterious alleles associated with declining population sizes. The magnitudes of GL due to fixed deleterious alleles in small populations and segregating deleterious alleles in large populations, however, were overall similar, suggesting that purging selection was an insignificant force when compared to genetic drift in determining the magnitude of GL in small natural populations in this species. The results of this study highlight the importance of population size in determining the dynamics of genetic loads of natural populations and are overall in line with a large body of theoretical work indicating that small populations may face higher extinction risks due to the fixation and accumulation of deleterious alleles of small effect.
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Vol. 57 • No. 10