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Stabilizing selection

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Stabilizing selection, also known as purifying selection, is a type of natural selection in which genetic diversity decreases as the population stabilizes on a particular trait value. Put another way, extreme values of the character are selected against. This is probably the most common mechanism of action for natural selection.

A classic example of this is human birth weight. Babies of low weight lose heat more quickly and get ill from infectious disease more easily, whereas babies of large body weight are more difficult to deliver through the pelvis. Interestingly, it has been demonstrated that the optimum birth weight (i.e. that which gives highest probability of survival) has shifted upwards as the Caesarian section has become readily available.

Stabilizing selection operates most of the time in most populations. This type of selection acts to prevent divergence of form and function. In this way, the anatomy of some organisms, such as sharks and ferns, has remained largely unchanged for millions of years.

Stabilizing selection can sometimes be detected by measuring the fitness of the range of different phenotypes by various direct measures, but it can also be detected by a variety of tests of molecular sequence data, such as Ka/Ks ratios, changes in allele frequency distributions and the McDonald Kreitman test.

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