Polymorphism, Biology tutorial


Polymorphism in biology takes place if two or more clearly dissimilar phenotypes exist in the similar population of a species - in another word, the incident of more than one form or morph. In order to be categorized as such, morphs should engage the similar habitat at the same time and fit into a panmictic population (one having random mating). 

Polymorphism is very common in nature; it is associated to biodiversity, genetic variation and adaptation; it generally functions to keep the variety of form in a population living in a varied environment. The most general illustration is sexual dimorphism, which takes place in many organisms. Other illustrations are mimetic forms of butterflies (see mimicry), and human haemoglobin and types of blood.

Polymorphism yields from evolutionary procedures, as does any feature of a species. It is heritable and is transformed through natural selection. In Polymorphism, an individual's genetic make-up facilitates for various morphs, and the switch mechanism which finds out which morph is exhibited is environmental. In genetic polymorphism, the genetic make-up finds out the morph. Ants show both kinds in a single population.


Polymorphism crosses some discipline boundaries, comprising ecology and genetics, evolution theory, cytology, taxonomy and biochemistry. Various disciplines might give the similar concept different names and different concepts might be given the similar name. For illustration, there are the terms established in the ecological genetics by E.B. Ford (1975) and for classical genetics by the John Maynard Smith (1998).The shorter word morphism might be more precise than polymorphism, however is not often employed. It was the favored term of the evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley (1955).

Different synonymous words exist for the different polymorphic forms of an organism. The most general are morph and morpha, whereas a more formal word is morphotype. Form and phase are at times as well employed, however are simply confused in zoology with, correspondingly, 'form' in a population of animals and 'phase' as a color or other change in an organism due to the environmental conditions (that is, temperature, humidity and so on). Phenotypic features and characteristics are as well possible explanations, though that would imply just a limited feature of the body.

In the taxonomic nomenclature of zoology, the term 'morpha' plus a Latin name for the morph can be added up to a binomial or trinomial name. Though, this invites confusion by geographically-variant ring species or subspecies, particularly if polytypic. Morphs encompass no formal standing in the ICZN. In botanical taxonomy, the theory of morphs is presented by the terms 'variety', 'sub-variety' and 'form', which are generally regulated by the ICBN.

Horticulturalists at times confuse this usage of 'variety' both having cultivar (that is 'variety' in viticulture usage, rice agriculture jargon and informal gardening lingo) and by the legal theory 'plant variety' (that is, protection of a cultivar as a form of the intellectual property)


Selection, whether natural or artificial, modifies the frequency of morphs in a population; this takes place if morphs reproduce by different degrees of success. A genetic (or balanced) polymorphism generally persists over numerous generations, maintained by two or more opposed and powerful selection pressures. Diver (1929) discovers banding morphs in the Cepaea nemoralis could be observed in pre-fossil shells going back to the Mesolithic Holocene. Apes have identical blood groups to humans; this suggests instead strongly that this type of polymorphism is quite ancient, at least as far back as the last common ancestor of the apes and man and perhaps even further.

The relative proportions of the morphs might differ; the real values are finding out by the efficient fitness of the morphs at a specific time and place. The method of heterozygote benefit makes sure the population of some alternative alleles at the locus or loci comprised.

Only when competing selection disappears will an allele disappear. Though, heterozygote benefit is not the only manner a polymorphism can be maintained. Apostatic selection, whereby a predator consumes a general morph whilst overlooking rarer morphs is possible and does take place. This would tend to conserve rarer morphs from extinction.

A polymorphic population doesn't initiate speciation; nor does it prevent the speciation. It consists of little or nothing to do by species splitting. Though, it consists of a lot to do by the adaptation of a species to its environment, which might differ in color, food supply, predation and in numerous other manners. Polymorphism is one good means the opportunities get to be employed; it consists of survival value and the selection of modifier genes might reinforce the polymorphism.

Polymorphism and Niche Diversity:

G. Evelyn Hutchinson, a founder of niche research, stated - 'It is much probable from an ecological view point that all the species, or at least all common species, comprise of populations adapted to more than one niche'. He gave illustrations sexual size dimorphism and mimicry. In most of the cases where the male is short-lived and smaller than the female, he doesn't compete with her throughout her late pre-adult and adult life. Size difference might permit both sexes to make use of different niches. In complex cases of mimicry, like the African butterfly Papilio dardanus, female morphs mimic a range of distasteful models, frequently in the similar region. The fitness of each kind of mimic reduces as it becomes more common, therefore the polymorphism is maintained through frequency-dependent selection. Therefore the efficiency of the mimicry is maintained in a much raised total population.

The switch:

The method which decides which some morphs an individual displays is termed as the switch. This switch might be genetic, or it might be environmental. Taking sex determination as the illustration, in humans the determination is genetic, by the XY sex-determination system. In Hymenoptera (that is, ants, bees and wasps), sex determination is through haplo-diploidy: the females are all diploid, the males are haploid. Though, in several animals an environmental trigger finds out the sex: alligators are a well-known case in point. In ants the difference among workers and guards is environmental, by the feeding of the grubs. Polymorphism having an environmental trigger is termed as polyphenism.

The polyphenic system does encompass a degree of environmental flexibility not present in the genetic polymorphism. Though, such environmental triggers are less common of the two processes.

Investigative Methods:

Investigation of polymorphism needs coming altogether of field and laboratory method. In the field:

a) Comprehensive survey of occurrence, habits and predation.

b) Selection of an ecological region or regions, having well-defined boundaries.

c) Capture, mark, release, recapture data.

d) Relative numbers and distribution of the morphs.

e) Assessment of the population sizes.

Genetic Polymorphism:

As all polymorphism consists of a genetic basis, genetic polymorphism consists of a specific meaning:

Genetic polymorphism is the concurrent occurrence in the similar locality of two or more discontinuous forms in such proportions that the rarest of them can't be sustained just by recurrent mutation or immigration. 

The definition has three portions: (i) Sympatry: one interbreeding population; (ii) Discrete forms; and (iii) not maintained merely by mutation.

Genetic polymorphism is steadily and actively maintained in populations through natural selection, in contrary to the transient polymorphisms where a form is progressively substituted by the other. By definition, genetic polymorphism associates to a balance or equilibrium among morphs. The methods that conserve it are kinds of balancing selection.

Mechanism of Balancing Selection:

1) Heterosis (or heterozygote benefit): The heterozygote at a locus is fitter than either homozygote. 

2) Frequency dependent selection: The fitness of a specific phenotype is based on its frequency relative to the other phenotypes in a given population. Illustration: prey switching, where rare morphs of prey are in reality fitter due to the predators concentrating on the more common morphs. 

3) Fitness differs in space and time. Fitness of a genotype might differ greatly among larval and adult phases or among parts of a habitat range. 

4) Selection acts in a different way at different levels. The fitness of a genotype might base on the fitness of other genotypes in the population: this covers numerous natural situations where the best thing to do (from the viewpoint of survival and reproduction) based on what other members of the population are doing at the time.


Most of the genes encompass more than one effect on the phenotype of an organism (pleiotropism). A few of these effects might be visible, and others cryptic, so it is frequently significant to look beyond the most obvious consequences of a gene to recognize other effects. Cases take place where a gene influences an unimportant visible character, yet a change in the fitness is recorded. In such cases the gene's other (cryptic or physiological) effects might be responsible for the change in the fitness.

When a neutral feature is pleiotropically attached to an advantageous one, it might emerge because of a procedure of natural selection. It was chosen however this doesn't signify it is an adaptation. The reason is that, however it was chosen, there was no selection for that feature or characteristic.


Epistasis takes place if the expression of one gene is transformed by the other gene. For illustration, gene A only exhibits its effect when allele B1 (at the other Locus) is present, however not if it is not present. This is one of the ways in which two or more genes might join to produce a coordinated change in more than one feature (for example, in mimicry). Dissimilar to the supergene, epistatic genes don't need to be closely associated or even on the similar chromosome. Both pleiotropism and epistasis exhibit that a gene require not associate to a character in the simple way which was once assumed.

Origin of supergenes:

However a polymorphism can be controlled through alleles at a single locus (example: human ABO blood groups), the more complex forms are controlled through supergenes comprising of some tightly linked genes on a single chromosome. Batesian mimicry in butterflies and heterostyly in angiosperms are good illustrations. There is a long-standing debate as to how this condition could have arisen and the question is not yet solved.

While a gene family (some tightly linked genes performing similar or identical functions) occurs through duplication of a single original gene, this is generally not the case by supergenes. In a supergene some of the constituent genes encompass quite distinct functions, so they should encompass come together beneath selection. This procedure might comprise suppression of the crossing-over, translocation of chromosome fragments and possibly occasional cistron duplication. That crossing-over can be suppressed through selection has been recognized for many years.

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