Anisotropic Isolation by Distance: The Main Orientations of Human Genetic Differentiation

Mol Biol Evol. 2013 Mar;30(3):513-25. doi: 10.1093/molbev/mss259. Epub 2012 Nov 20.


Genetic differentiation among human populations is greatly influenced by geography due to the accumulation of local allele frequency differences. However, little is known about the possibly different increment of genetic differentiation along the different geographical axes (north-south, east-west, etc.). Here, we provide new methods to examine the asymmetrical patterns of genetic differentiation. We analyzed genome-wide polymorphism data from populations in Africa (n = 29), Asia (n = 26), America (n = 9), and Europe (n = 38), and we found that the major orientations of genetic differentiation are north-south in Europe and Africa, and east-west in Asia, but no preferential orientation was found in the Americas. Additionally, we showed that the localization of the individual geographic origins based on single nucleotide polymorphism data was not equally precise along all orientations. Confirming our findings, we obtained that, in each continent, the orientation along which the precision is maximal corresponds to the orientation of maximum differentiation. Our results have implications for interpreting human genetic variation in terms of isolation by distance and spatial range expansion processes. In Europe, for instance, the precise northnorthwest-southsoutheast axis of main European differentiation cannot be explained by a simple Neolithic demic diffusion model without admixture with the local populations because in that case the orientation of greatest differentiation should be perpendicular to the direction of expansion. In addition to humans, anisotropic analyses can guide the description of genetic differentiation for other organisms and provide information on expansions of invasive species or the processes of plant dispersal.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Africa
  • Algorithms
  • Americas
  • Asia
  • Computer Simulation
  • Europe
  • Gene Frequency
  • Genome, Human
  • Humans
  • Models, Genetic*
  • Phylogeography
  • Polymorphism, Single Nucleotide
  • Principal Component Analysis