Stephan Peischl, Laurent Excoffier
Expanding populations incur a mutation burden – the so-called expansion load. Previous studies of expansion load have focused on co-dominant mutations. An important consequence of this assumption is that expansion load stems exclusively from the accumulation of new mutations occurring in individuals living at the wave front. Using individual-based simulations we study here the dynamics of standing genetic variation at the front of expansions, and its consequences on mean fitness if mutations are recessive. We find that deleterious genetic diversity is quickly lost at the front of the expansion, but the loss of deleterious mutations at some loci is compensated by an increase of their frequencies at other loci. The frequency of deleterious homozygotes therefore increases along the expansion axis whereas the average number of deleterious mutations per individual remains nearly constant across the species range. This reveals two important differences to co-dominant models: (i) mean fitness at the front of the expansion drops much faster if mutations are recessive, and (ii) mutation load can increase during the expansion even if the total number of deleterious mutations per individual remains constant. We use our model to make predictions about the shape of the site frequency spectrum at the front of range expansion, and about correlations between heterozygosity and fitness in different parts of the species range. Importantly, these predictions provide opportunities to empirically validate our theoretical results. We discuss our findings in the light of recent results on the distribution of deleterious genetic variation across human populations, and link them to empirical results on the correlation of heterozygosity and fitness found in many natural range expansions.