Conditionally expressed genes have the property that every individual in a population carries and transmits the gene, but only a fraction, ø, expresses the gene and exposes it to natural selection. We show that a consequence of this pattern of inheritance and expression is a weakening of the strength of natural selection, allowing deleterious mutations to accumulate within and between species and inhibiting the spread of beneficial mutations. We extend previous theory to show that conditional expression in space and time have approximately equivalent effects on relaxing the strength of selection and that the effect holds in a spatially heterogeneous environment even with low migration rates among patches. We support our analytical approximations with computer simulations and delineate the parameter range under which the approximations fail. We model the effects of conditional expression on sequence polymorphism at mutation-selection-drift equilibrium, allowing for neutral sites, and show that sequence variation within and between species is inflated by conditional expression, with the effect being strongest in populations with large effective size. As ø decreases, more sites are recruited into neutrality, leading to pseudogenization and increased drift load. Mutation accumulation diminishes the degree of adaptation of conditionally expressed genes to rare environments, and the mutational cost of phenotypic plasticity, which we quantify as the plasticity load, is greater for more rarely expressed genes. Our theory connects gene-level relative polymorphism and divergence with the spatial and temporal frequency of environments inducing gene expression. Our theory suggests that null hypotheses for levels of standing genetic variation and sequence divergence must be corrected to account for the frequency of expression of the genes under study.
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