Our paper: Inference of population splits and mixtures from genome-wide allele frequency data

[This author post is by Joe Pickrell (@joe_pickrell) on Inference of population splits and mixtures from genome-wide allele frequency data, available from arXiv here]

Early last year, I began working (with Jonathan Pritchard) on methods for using genetics to understand population history. As we describe in our preprint, our approach was to build a parameterized model to describe the patterns of correlation in allele frequencies across populations. This type of approach dates back to brilliant work on building population trees by Luca Cavalli-Sforza, AWF Edwards, and Joe Felsenstein from around 40 years ago. The key to our work is that instead of representing history as a bifurcating tree, we additionally allow “migration events” to model admixture between populations. The output from our model (called TreeMix, and available here) is something like that shown below.

A graph of human population history, allowing 10 migration events. Populations are colored according to geographic region.

We applied this method to both human and dog history, with a mix of both known and novel historical results. I thought here I’d speculate about a couple of the novel results:

1. In the human data (see the graph above), one of the more surprising things to me was the arrow to the Cambodian population. The Cambodians appear to be an admixed population, with ~85% of their ancestry related to other southeast Asian populations (like the Dai) and ~15% of their ancestry from…it’s not totally clear. As you can see in the graph, the source of this admixture appears to be a population not particularly closely related to any other population in these data. So who was this population? A speculation is that this represents ancestry from a population related to the “Ancestral South Indian” population described by Reich et al. (2009), though other sources (e.g. Oceania) are plausible.

2. In the dog data (see Figures 5 and 6 in the pre-print), the most overwhelming signal in the data is that the Basenji, a central African dog breed, appears to trace ~25% of its ancestry to admixture with wolves since domestication. This signal is made somewhat surprising by the fact that there are no wolf populations currently living in Africa, which would seem to be a formidable barrier to admixture with an African dog breed. A hint for what’s going on here is provided by vonHoldt et al. (2010), who show that the basenji have an unusual amount of shared variation with wolves from the Middle East. One speculation, then, is that as the ancestors of the Basenji moved into Africa, they came into contact with Middle Eastern wolves and admixed with them.

Other suggestions for scenarios to explain these results are of course welcome. Overall, I’m hopeful that approaches like TreeMix will eventually supplant “standard” tree-building algorithms for situations in which gene flow is known to occur, though of course further development is necessary before this becomes reality.

Joe Pickrell

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