Detecting balancing selection in genomes: limits and prospects

Mol Ecol. 2015 Jul;24(14):3529-45. doi: 10.1111/mec.13226. Epub 2015 Jun 15.


In spite of the long-term interest in the process of balancing selection, its frequency in genomes and evolutionary significance remain unclear due to challenges related to its detection. Current statistical approaches based on patterns of variation observed in molecular data suffer from low power and a high incidence of false positives. This raises the question whether balancing selection is rare or is simply difficult to detect. We discuss genetic signatures produced by this mode of selection and review the current approaches used for their identification in genomes. Advantages and disadvantages of the available methods are presented, and areas where improvement is possible are identified. Increased specificity and reduced rate of false positives may be achieved by using a demographic model, applying combinations of tests, appropriate sampling scheme and taking into account intralocus variation in selection pressures. We emphasize novel solutions, recently developed model-based approaches and good practices that should be implemented in future studies looking for signals of balancing selection. We also draw attention of the readers to the results of recent theoretical studies, which suggest that balancing selection may be ubiquitous but transient, leaving few signatures detectable by existing methods. Testing this new theory may require the development of novel high-throughput methods extending beyond genomic scans.

Keywords: balancing selection; genetic variation; genomic scan; population genetics.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Biological Evolution*
  • Gene Frequency
  • Genetics, Population
  • Genome
  • Linkage Disequilibrium
  • Models, Genetic*
  • Polymorphism, Genetic*
  • Selection, Genetic*