A multilocus stochastic model is developed to simulate the dynamics of mutational load in small populations of various sizes. Old mutations sampled from a large ancestral population at mutation–selection balance and new mutations arising each generation are considered jointly, using biologically plausible lethal and deleterious mutation parameters. The results show that inbreeding depression and the number of lethal equivalents due to partially recessive mutations can be partly purged from the population by inbreeding, and that this purging mainly involves lethals or detrimentals of large effect. However, fitness decreases continuously with inbreeding, due to increased fixation and homozygosity of mildly deleterious mutants, resulting in extinctions of very small populations with low reproductive rates. No optimum inbreeding rate or population size exists for purging with respect to fitness (viability) changes, but there is an optimum inbreeding rate at a given final level of inbreeding for reducing inbreeding depression or the number of lethal equivalents. The interaction between selection against partially recessive mutations and genetic drift in small populations also influences the rate of decay of neutral variation. Weak selection against mutants relative to genetic drift results in apparent overdominance and thus an increase in effective size (Ne) at neutral loci, and strong selection relative to drift leads to a decrease in Ne due to the increased variance in family size. The simulation results and their implications are discussed in the context of biological conservation and tests for purging.
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