Neutral Theory, Disease Mutations, and Personal Exomes

Mol Biol Evol. 2018 Jun 1;35(6):1297-1303. doi: 10.1093/molbev/msy085.

Abstract

Genetic differences between species and within populations are two sides of the same coin under the neutral theory of molecular evolution. This theory posits that a vast majority of evolutionary substitutions, which appear as differences between species, are (nearly) neutral, that is, these substitutions are permitted without a significantly adverse impact on a species' survival. We refer to them as evolutionarily permissible (ePerm) variation. Evolutionary permissibility of any possible variant can be inferred from multispecies sequence alignments by applying sophisticated statistical methods to the evolutionary tree of species. Here, we explore the evolutionary permissibility of amino acid variants associated with genetic diseases and those observed in personal exomes. Consistent with the predictions of the neutral theory, disease associated amino acid variants are rarely ePerm, much more biochemically radical, and found predominantly at more conserved positions than their non-disease counterparts. Only 10% of amino acid mutations are ePerm, but these variants rise to become two-thirds of all substitutions in the human lineage (a 6-fold enrichment). In contrast, only a minority of the variants in a personal exome are ePerm, a seemingly counterintuitive pattern that results from a combination of mutational and evolutionary processes that are, in fact, broadly consistent with the neutral theory. Evolutionarily forbidden variants outnumber detrimental variants in individual exomes and may play an underappreciated role in protecting against disease. We discuss these observations and conclude that the long-term evolutionary history of species can illuminate functional biomedical properties of variation present in personal exomes.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Amino Acid Substitution
  • Animals
  • Evolution, Molecular*
  • Exome*
  • Genetic Diseases, Inborn / genetics*
  • Genetic Drift*
  • Humans
  • Mutation, Missense*