Genetic rescue of small inbred populations: meta-analysis reveals large and consistent benefits of gene flow

Richard Frankham*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

312 Citations (Scopus)


Abstract: Many species have fragmented distribution with small isolated populations suffering inbreeding depression and/or reduced ability to evolve. Without gene flow from another population within the species (genetic rescue), these populations are likely to be extirpated. However, there have been only ∼ 20 published cases of such outcrossing for conservation purposes, probably a very low proportion of populations that would potentially benefit. As one impediment to genetic rescues is the lack of an overview of the magnitude and consistency of genetic rescue effects in wild species, I carried out a meta-analysis. Outcrossing of inbred populations resulted in beneficial effects in 92.9% of 156 cases screened as having a low risk of outbreeding depression. The median increase in composite fitness (combined fecundity and survival) following outcrossing was 148% in stressful environments and 45% in benign ones. Fitness benefits also increased significantly with maternal ΔF (reduction in inbreeding coefficient due to gene flow) and for naturally outbreeding versus inbreeding species. However, benefits did not differ significantly among invertebrates, vertebrates and plants. Evolutionary potential for fitness characters in inbred populations also benefited from gene flow. There are no scientific impediments to the widespread use of outcrossing to genetically rescue inbred populations of naturally outbreeding species, provided potential crosses have a low risk of outbreeding depression. I provide revised guidelines for the management of genetic rescue attempts. See also the Perspective by Waller

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2610-2618
Number of pages9
JournalMolecular Ecology
Issue number11
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2015


  • evolutionary potential
  • genetic rescue guidelines
  • heterosis
  • inbreeding depression
  • outbreeding depression
  • outcrossing

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