IB Biology SL

Revision Notes

5.1.3 Variation


  • Differences exist between organisms of the same species
    • These differences are known as variation
    • Examples of variation include:
      • Coat colour in mammals
      • Body length in fish
      • Flower colour in flowering plants
  • The process of natural selection can only take place when there is variation in a population
    • If every organism in a population is identical then no individual will be favoured over another
    • There will be no advantageous characteristics leading to increased survival and chances of reproduction, and so there would be no increased likelihood of passing on those advantageous alleles
    • In this situation, a population’s characteristics would remain the same over time and it would be unable to adapt to any environmental changes

Causes of Variation

  • Variation results from small differences in DNA base sequences between individual organisms within a population
  • There are several sources of these differences in DNA base sequences:
    • Mutation
    • Meiosis
    • Random fertilisation during sexual reproduction


  • The original source of genetic variation is mutation
    • A mutation is a change in the DNA base sequence that results from a copying error during DNA replication
  • Mutation results in the generation of new alleles
  • Mutations that take place in the dividing cells of the sex organs lead to changes in the alleles of the gametes that are passed on to the next generation
    • A new allele may be advantageous, disadvantageous or have no apparent effect
    • An advantageous allele is more likely to be passed on to the next generation because it increases the chance that an organism will survive and reproduce
    • A disadvantageous mutation is more likely to die out because an organism with such a mutation is less likely to survive and reproduce
  • Note that a mutation taking place in a body, or somatic, cell will not be passed on to successive generations, and so will have no impact on natural selection
  • Mutation is the only source of variation in asexually reproducing species


  • There are two main events during the process of meiosis that generate variation
    • Crossing over
    • Random orientation
  • Crossing over is the process by which homologous chromosomes exchange alleles
    • During meiosis I homologous chromosomes pair up
    • The non-sister chromatids can cross over and get entangled
    • As a result of this, a section of chromatid from one homologous chromosome may break and rejoin with the chromatid from the other chromosome
  • This swapping of alleles is significant as it can result in a new combination of alleles on the two homologous chromosomes

Crossing over (1), downloadable AS & A Level Biology revision notesCrossing over (2), downloadable AS & A Level Biology revision notes

The process of crossing over can result in new combinations of alleles

  • Random orientation occurs due to the independent arrangement of homologous pairs along the equator of the cell during metaphase I
    • Each pair can be arranged with either chromosome on either side of the cell; this is completely random
    • The orientation of one homologous pair is independent, or unaffected by the orientation of any other pair
    • This is sometimes described as independent assortment
  • The homologous chromosomes on the equator of the cell are pulled apart to different poles, and will each end up in a separate daughter cell
  • The combination of alleles that end up in each daughter cell depends on how the pairs of homologous chromosomes were lined up
  • To work out the number of different possible chromosome combinations the formula 2n can be used, where n corresponds to the number of chromosomes in a haploid cell
    • E.g. for humans this is 223 which calculates as 8,324,608 different combinations

Independent assortment (1), downloadable AS & A Level Biology revision notesIndependent assortment (2), downloadable AS & A Level Biology revision notes

Random orientation of chromosomes

Random fertilisation during sexual reproduction

  • Meiosis creates genetic variation between the gametes through crossing over and independent assortment
  • This means each gamete carries substantially different alleles
  • During fertilisation any male gamete can fuse with any female gamete to form a zygote
  • This random fusion of gametes at fertilisation creates genetic variation between zygotes as each will have a unique combination of alleles
  • There is an almost zero chance of individual organisms resulting from successive sexual reproduction being genetically identical

Random fusion of gametes, downloadable AS & A Level Biology revision notes

The random fusion of gametes during fertilisation

Sources of Genetic Variation Table

Sources of Genetic Variation Table, downloadable AS & A Level Biology revision notes


  • Adaptations can be defined as:
    • Characteristics that cause individuals to be well suited to their environment and methods of living
  • When describing an adaptation it is always a good idea to relate the structure of a characteristic to its function, e.g.
    • Fish gills are an adaptation for survival underwater; they have a very large surface area, enabling them to maximise oxygen absorption from water
    • The thick fur of a polar bear is an adaptation for survival in a cold environment; it is thick, trapping a layer of warm air next to the polar bear’s body and providing insulation
    • Different beak shapes in birds enable the consumption of different types of food; some species of finch have short, cone-shaped beaks that enable them to crack nuts and seeds
  • Adaptations arise in species gradually by evolution through the process of natural selection
    • In a slowly changing environment, populations are able to adapt by natural selection and survival continues
    • If an environment changes quickly, the process of natural selection is too slow and adaptation cannot occur fast enough; in this situation, a population must migrate to a different environment or it will go extinct

Exam Tip

Remember that adaptation occurs as a result of natural selection; a process that acts on randomly occurring variation, and does not occur as a direct, purposeful response to an environment; avoid any statements that imply that adaptations occur ‘so that’ an organism can survive in its environment. Instead, it is correct to say that adaptations occur by natural selection as a result of random variation in populations.

Author: Lára

Lára graduated from Oxford University in Biological Sciences and has now been a science tutor working in the UK for several years. Lára has a particular interest in the area of infectious disease and epidemiology, and enjoys creating original educational materials that develop confidence and facilitate learning.

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