It is often hypothesized that slow inbreeding causes less inbreeding depression than fast inbreeding at the same absolute level of inbreeding. Possible explanations for this phenomenon include the more efficient purging of deleterious alleles and more efficient selection for heterozygote individuals during slow, when compared with fast, inbreeding. We studied the impact of inbreeding rate on the loss of heterozygosity and on morphological traits in Drosophila melanogaster. We analysed five noninbred control lines, 10 fast inbred lines and 10 slow inbred lines; the inbred lines all had an expected inbreeding coefficient of approximately 0.25. Forty single nucleotide polymorphisms in DNA coding regions were genotyped, and we measured the size and shape of wings and counted the number of sternopleural bristles on the genotyped individuals. We found a significantly higher level of genetic variation in the slow inbred lines than in the fast inbred lines. This higher genetic variation was resulting from a large contribution from a few loci and a smaller effect from several loci. We attributed the increased heterozygosity in the slow inbred lines to the favouring of heterozygous individuals over homozygous individuals by natural selection, either by associative over-dominance or balancing selection, or a combination of both. Furthermore, we found a significant polynomial correlation between genetic variance and wing size and shape in the fast inbred lines. This was caused by a greater number of homozygous individuals among the fast inbred lines with small, narrow wings, which indicated inbreeding depression. Our results demonstrated that the same amount of inbreeding can have different effects on genetic variance depending on the inbreeding rate, with slow inbreeding leading to higher genetic variance than fast inbreeding. These results increase our understanding of the genetic basis of the common observation that slow inbred lines express less inbreeding depression than fast inbred lines. In addition, this has more general implications for the importance of selection in maintaining genetic variation.
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