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Wild Type in Genetics: Definition & Traits

Instructor: Meredith Mikell
Identifying the genetic 'wild type' in populations is critical to understanding how that population is changing. Here we will define the 'wild type' and review some examples. At the end, you can test your knowledge with a short quiz.

Majority Rule

In populations of living things, there is usually a dominant variety. A color, pattern, shape, or other characteristic that is more abundant than others, and that typically defines members of that population. For instance, most tigers have orange fur and black stripes -- this is their dominant pattern variety. But there are often other, more rare varieties that pop up in the population as well. Geneticists call the individuals with the common or 'normal' version of a characteristic the wild type, and the individuals with a unique or contrasting characteristic the mutants.

I know the idea of 'mutants' might conjure up Wolverine and Magneto, or the Hulk when he's angry. But in biology, it simply refers to an individual with a characterizing trait outside of the normal variety. Mutations are not about extra limbs and super strength; they pertain to flaws or accidental changes in gene sequence that can be beneficial to the individual, or harmful, or as is the case most of the time, neither.

Sometimes there is more than one trait that defines the wild type or mutants. Sometimes more than one variety of a given trait can be the wild type. Both situations are shown below.

The wild type parakeets (right) in their color and size, compared to the mutant type parakeet (left).
parakeet wild type

Examples

Color

Color is the most commonly recognized wild type characteristic. In animal populations, the prevalence of albinism and melanistic mutations are often identified outside of the wild types, and are found across many species.

  • Albinism - all white appearance, lacking the gene coding for melanin (pigment)
  • Melanistic - all black appearance, a gene that over-codes for melanin

Variations in squirrel coat colors: wild type (center), albino (right), and melanistic (left)
squirrels wild type mutants

In some species, albinism is fairly common (though not enough to be considered the wild type). This is true for rodents and rabbits. Melanistic is fairly uncommon; however, panthers and leopards are considered to be the same species, the former melanistic and the latter wild type, wherein the black melanism is actually dominant.

Lactose Tolerance

In humans, lactose tolerance is a common example of a highly successful mutation. That's right, being lactose intolerant is actually the original normal variety, and being able to enjoy dairy products makes you a mutant!

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