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.
There are a massive number of potential traits we could focus on, each of which could have a large number of different (and interacting) impacts on evolution. One that is often considered, and highly relevant for genetic studies, is the influence of dispersal capability.
Dispersal is essentially the process of an organism migrating to a new habitat, to the point of the two being used almost interchangeably. Often, however, we regard dispersal as a migration event that actually has genetic consequences; particularly, if new populations are formed or if organisms move from one population to another. This can differ from straight migration in that animals that migrate might not necessarily breed (and thus pass on genes) into a new region during their migration; thus, evidence of those organisms will not genetically proliferate into the future through offspring.
As these individuals occupy large ranges, localised impacts are unlikely to critically affect their full distribution. Individual organisms that are occupying an unpleasant space can easily move to a more favourable habitat (provided that one exists). Furthermore, with a large population (which is more likely with highly dispersive species), genetic drift is substantially weaker and natural selection (generally) has a higher amount of genetic diversity to work with. This is, of course, assuming that dispersal leads to a large overall population, which might not be the case for species that are critically endangered (such as the cheetah).
A large number of species, however, are likely to occupy a more intermediate range of dispersal ability. These species might be able to migrate to neighbouring populations, or across a large proportion of their geographic range, but individuals from one end of the range are still somewhat isolated from individuals at the other end.
Species with low dispersal capabilities are often at risk of local extinction and are unable to easily recolonise these habitats after the event has ended. Their movement is often restricted to rare environmental events such as flooding that carry individuals long distances despite their physiological limitations. Because of this, low dispersal species are often at greater risk of total extinction and extinction vertices than their higher dispersing counterparts.
Accounting for dispersal in population genetics
Incorporating biological and physiological aspects of our study taxa is important for interpreting the evolutionary context of species. Dispersal ability is but one of many characteristics that can influence the ability of species to respond to selective pressures, and the context in which this natural selection occurs. Thus, understanding all aspects of an organism is important in building the full picture of their evolution and future prospects.