Conservation biology is frequently referred to as a “crisis discipline“, a status which doesn’t appear to be changing any time soon. Like any response to a crisis, biologists of all walks of life operate under a prioritisation scheme – how can our finite resources be best utilised to save as much biodiversity as possible? This approach requires some knowledge of both current vulnerability and future threat – we need to focus our efforts on those populations and species which are most at-risk of extinction in the near (often immediate) future.
Further to this, we can expand the site-frequency spectrum to compare across populations. Instead of having a simple 1-dimensional frequency distribution, for a pair of populations we can have a grid. This grid specifies how often a particular allele occurs at a certain frequency in Population A and at a different frequency in Population B. This can also be visualised quite easily, albeit as a heatmap instead. We refer to this as the 2-dimensional SFS (2DSFS).
The same concept can be expanded to even more populations, although this gets harder to represent visually. Essentially, we end up with a set of different matrices which describe the frequency of certain alleles across all of our populations, merging them together into the joint SFS. For example, a joint SFS of 4 populations would consist of 6 (4 x 4 total comparisons – 4 self-comparisons, then halved to remove duplicate comparisons) 2D SFSs all combined together. To make sense of this, check out the diagrammatic tables below.
The different forms of the SFS
Which alleles we choose to use within our SFS is particularly important. If we don’t have a lot of information about the genomics or evolutionary history of our study species, we might choose to use the minor allele frequency (MAF). Given that SNPs tend to be biallelic, for any given locus we could have Allele A or Allele B. The MAF chooses the least frequent of these two within the dataset and uses that in the summary SFS: since the other allele’s frequency would just be 2N – the frequency of the other allele, it’s not included in the summary. An SFS made of the MAF is also referred to as the folded SFS.
Alternatively, if we know some things about the genetic history of our study species, we might be able to divide Allele A and Allele B into derived or ancestral alleles. Since SNPs often occur as mutations at a single site in the DNA, one allele at the given site is the new mutation (the derived allele) whilst the other is the ‘original’ (the ancestral allele). Typically, we would use the derived allele frequency to construct the SFS, since under coalescent theory we’re trying to simulate that mutation event. An SFS made of the derived alleles only is also referred to as the unfolded SFS.
Applications of the SFS
How can we use the SFS? Well, it can moreorless be used as a summary of genetic variation for many types of coalescent-based analyses. This means we can make inferences of demographic history (see here for more detailed explanation of that) without simulating large and complex genetic sequences and instead use the SFS. Comparing our observed SFS to a simulated scenario of a bottleneck and comparing the expected SFS allows us to estimate the likelihood of that scenario.
The SFS can even be used to detect alleles under natural selection. For strongly selected parts of the genome, alleles should occur at either high (if positively selected) or low (if negatively selected) frequency, with a deficit of more intermediate frequencies.
Adding to the analytical toolbox
The SFS is just one of many tools we can use to investigate the demographic history of populations and species. Using a combination of genomic technologies, coalescent theory and more robust analytical methods, the SFS appears to be poised to tackle more nuanced and complex questions of the evolutionary history of life on Earth.
A recurring analytical method, both within The G-CAT and the broader ecological genetic literature, is based on coalescent theory. This is based on the mathematical notion that mutations within genes (leading to new alleles) can be traced backwards in time, to the point where the mutation initially occurred. Given that this is a retrospective, instead of describing these mutation moments as ‘divergence’ events (as would be typical for phylogenetics), these appear as moments where mutations come back together i.e. coalesce.
From a mathematical perspective, the coalescent model is actually (relatively) simple. If we sampled a single gene from two different individuals (for simplicity’s sake, we’ll say they are haploid and only have one copy per gene), we can statistically measure the probability of these alleles merging back in time (coalescing) at any given generation. This is the same probability that the two samples share an ancestor (think of a much, much shorter version of sharing an evolutionary ancestor with a chimpanzee).
Normally, if we were trying to pick the parents of our two samples, the number of potential parents would be the size of the ancestral population (since any individual in the previous generation has equal probability of being their parent). But from a genetic perspective, this is based on the genetic (effective) population size (Ne), multiplied by 2 as each individual carries two copies per gene (one paternal and one maternal). Therefore, the number of potential parents is 2Ne.
Although this might seem mathematically complicated, the coalescent model provides us with a scenario of how we would expect different mutations to coalesce back in time if those idealistic scenarios are true. However, biology is rarely convenient and it’s unlikely that our study populations follow these patterns perfectly. By studying how our empirical data varies from the expectations, however, allows us to infer some interesting things about the history of populations and species.
This makes sense from theoretical perspective as well, since strong genetic bottlenecks means that most alleles are lost. Thus, the alleles that we do have are much more likely to coalesce shortly after the bottleneck, with very few alleles that coalesce before the bottleneck event. These alleles are ones that have managed to survive the purge of the bottleneck, and are often few compared to the overarching patterns across the genome.
In a similar vein, the coalescent can also be used to test how long ago the two contemporary populations diverged. Similar to gene flow, this is often included as an additional parameter on top of the coalescent model in terms of the number of generations ago. To convert this to a meaningful time estimate (e.g. in terms of thousands or millions of years ago), we need to include a mutation rate (the number of mutations per base pair of sequence per generation) and a generation time for the study species (how many years apart different generations are: for humans, we would typically say ~20-30 years).
While each of these individual concepts may seem (depending on how well you handle maths!) relatively simple, one critical issue is the interactive nature of the different factors. Gene flow, divergence time and population size changes will all simultaneously impact the distribution and frequency of alleles and thus the coalescent method. Because of this, we often use complex programs to employ the coalescent which tests and balances the relative contributions of each of these factors to some extent. Although the coalescent is a complex beast, improvements in the methodology and the programs that use it will continue to improve our ability to infer evolutionary history with coalescent theory.
One particular distinction we need to make early here is the difference between allele frequency and allele identity. In these analyses, often we are working with the same alleles (i.e. particular variants) across our populations, it’s just that each of these populations may possess these particular alleles in different frequencies. For example, one population may have an allele (let’s call it Allele A) very rarely – maybe only 10% of individuals in that population possess it – but in another population it’s very common and perhaps 80% of individuals have it. This is a different level of differentiation than comparing how different alleles mutate (as in the coalescent) or how these mutations accumulate over time (like in many phylogenetic-based analyses).
Fixed differences are sometimes used as a type of diagnostic trait for species. This means that each ‘species’ has genetic variants that are not shared at all with its closest relative species, and that these variants are so strongly under selection that there is no diversity at those loci. Often, fixed differences are considered a level above populations that differ by allelic frequency only as these alleles are considered ‘diagnostic’ for each species.
To distinguish between the two, we often use the overall frequency of alleles in a population as a basis for determining how likely two individuals share an allele by random chance. If alleles which are relatively rare in the overall population are shared by two individuals, we expect that this similarity is due to family structure rather than population history. By factoring this into our relatedness estimates we can get a more accurate overview of how likely two individuals are to be related using genetic information.
The wild world of allele frequency
Despite appearances, this is just a brief foray into the many applications of allele frequency data in evolution, ecology and conservation studies. There are a plethora of different programs and methods that can utilise this information to address a variety of scientific questions and refine our investigations.