Generalized population models and the nature of genetic drift

Theor Popul Biol. 2011 Sep;80(2):80-99. doi: 10.1016/j.tpb.2011.06.004. Epub 2011 Jun 28.


The Wright-Fisher model of allele dynamics forms the basis for most theoretical and applied research in population genetics. Our understanding of genetic drift, and its role in suppressing the deterministic forces of Darwinian selection has relied on the specific form of sampling inherent to the Wright-Fisher model and its diffusion limit. Here we introduce and analyze a broad class of forward-time population models that share the same mean and variance as the Wright-Fisher model, but may otherwise differ. The proposed class unifies and further generalizes a number of population-genetic processes of recent interest, including the Λ and Cannings processes. Even though these models all have the same variance effective population size, they encode a rich diversity of alternative forms of genetic drift, with significant consequences for allele dynamics. We characterize in detail the behavior of standard population-genetic quantities across this family of generalized models. Some quantities, such as heterozygosity, remain unchanged; but others, such as neutral absorption times and fixation probabilities under selection, deviate by orders of magnitude from the Wright-Fisher model. We show that generalized population models can produce startling phenomena that differ qualitatively from classical behavior - such as assured fixation of a new mutant despite the presence of genetic drift. We derive the forward-time continuum limits of the generalized processes, analogous to Kimura's diffusion limit of the Wright-Fisher process, and we discuss their relationships to the Kingman and non-Kingman coalescents. Finally, we demonstrate that some non-diffusive, generalized models are more likely, in certain respects, than the Wright-Fisher model itself, given empirical data from Drosophila populations.

MeSH terms

  • Genetic Drift*
  • Humans
  • Models, Theoretical*