A general approximation for the dynamics of quantitative traits

Katarína Boďová, Gašper Tkačik, Nicholas H. Barton

Selection, mutation and random drift affect the dynamics of allele frequencies and consequently of quantitative traits. While the macroscopic dynamics of quantitative traits can be measured, the underlying allele frequencies are typically unobserved. Can we understand how the macroscopic observables evolve without following these microscopic processes? The problem has previously been studied by analogy with statistical mechanics: the allele frequency distribution at each time is approximated by the stationary form, which maximises entropy. We explore the limitations of this method when mutation is small (4Nμ<1) so that populations are typically close to fixation and we extend the theory in this regime to account for changes in mutation strength. We consider a single diallelic locus under either directional selection, or with over-dominance, and then generalise to multiple unlinked biallelic loci with unequal effects. We find that the maximum entropy approximation is remarkably accurate, even when mutation and selection change rapidly.