Population genetics inference for longitudinally-sampled mutants under strong selection

Genetics. 2014 Nov;198(3):1237-50. doi: 10.1534/genetics.114.167957. Epub 2014 Sep 10.


Longitudinal allele frequency data are becoming increasingly prevalent. Such samples permit statistical inference of the population genetics parameters that influence the fate of mutant variants. To infer these parameters by maximum likelihood, the mutant frequency is often assumed to evolve according to the Wright-Fisher model. For computational reasons, this discrete model is commonly approximated by a diffusion process that requires the assumption that the forces of natural selection and mutation are weak. This assumption is not always appropriate. For example, mutations that impart drug resistance in pathogens may evolve under strong selective pressure. Here, we present an alternative approximation to the mutant-frequency distribution that does not make any assumptions about the magnitude of selection or mutation and is much more computationally efficient than the standard diffusion approximation. Simulation studies are used to compare the performance of our method to that of the Wright-Fisher and Gaussian diffusion approximations. For large populations, our method is found to provide a much better approximation to the mutant-frequency distribution when selection is strong, while all three methods perform comparably when selection is weak. Importantly, maximum-likelihood estimates of the selection coefficient are severely attenuated when selection is strong under the two diffusion models, but not when our method is used. This is further demonstrated with an application to mutant-frequency data from an experimental study of bacteriophage evolution. We therefore recommend our method for estimating the selection coefficient when the effective population size is too large to utilize the discrete Wright-Fisher model.

Keywords: Wright–Fisher model; allele frequencies; diffusion approximation; population genetics; selection coefficient.

MeSH terms

  • Bacteriophages / genetics
  • Computer Simulation
  • Genetics, Population*
  • Likelihood Functions
  • Models, Genetic
  • Mutation / genetics*
  • Selection, Genetic*