Exact coalescent for the Wright-Fisher model

Theor Popul Biol. 2006 Jun;69(4):385-94. doi: 10.1016/j.tpb.2005.11.005. Epub 2006 Jan 19.


The Kingman coalescent, which has become the foundation for a wide range of theoretical as well as empirical studies, was derived as an approximation of the Wright-Fisher (WF) model. The approximation heavily relies on the assumption that population size is large and sample size is much smaller than the population size. Whether the sample size is too large compared to the population size is rarely questioned in practice when applying statistical methods based on the Kingman coalescent. Since WF model is the most widely used population genetics model for reproduction, it is desirable to develop a coalescent framework for the WF model, which can be used whenever there are concerns about the accuracy of the Kingman coalescent as an approximation. This paper described the exact coalescent theory for the WF model and develops a simulation algorithm, which is then used, together with an analytical approach, to study the properties of the exact coalescent as well as its differences to the Kingman coalescent. We show that the Kingman coalescent differs from the exact coalescent by: (1) shorter waiting time between successive coalescent events; (2) different probability of observing a topological relationship among sequences in a sample; and (3) slightly smaller tree length in the genealogy of a large sample. On the other hand, there is little difference in the age of the most recent common ancestor (MRCA) of the sample. The exact coalescent makes up the longer waiting time between successive coalescent events by having multiple coalescence at the same time. The most significant difference among various summary statistics of a coalescent examined is the sum of lengths of external branches, which can be more than 10% larger for exact coalescent than that for the Kingman coalescent. As a whole, the Kingman coalescent is a remarkably accurate approximation to the exact coalescent for sample and population sizes falling considerably outside the region that was originally anticipated.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Algorithms
  • Genetic Linkage*
  • Genetics, Population / statistics & numerical data*
  • Humans
  • Markov Chains
  • Models, Genetic*
  • Population Density*
  • Population Dynamics*
  • Recombination, Genetic*