Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Charles Darwin and the coalescent

The full title of Charles Darwin's most famous book was On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. It is important to note that this title juxtaposes the concepts of between-species variation and within-species variation (Darwin usually referred to "races" rather than to "breeds", "subspecies", etc). This was one of his major insights: the idea that there is a continuum of variation in biology through time (or, as he put it, that it is arbitrary whether variants are treated as different races or as different species).

As I recently noted, this paved the way for between-species phylogenies to be seen as directly analogous to within-species genealogies (The role of biblical genealogies in phylogenetics) — previous applications of genealogies to non-humans (such as those of Buffon and Duchesne) had been explicitly restricted to within-sepcies relationships.

This conceptual integration of within-species and between-species relationships has become explicit in modern biology by using multispecies coalescent models to integrate population genetics and phylogenetics. As noted by Reid et al. (2014):
These models treat populations, rather than alleles sampled from a single individual, as the focal units in phylogenetic trees. The multispecies coalescent model connects traditional phylogenetic inference, which seeks primarily to infer patterns of divergence between species, and population genetic inference, which has typically focused on intraspecific evolutionary processes. The development of these models was motivated by the common empirical observation that genealogies estimated from different genes are often discordant and the discovery that, if ignored, this discordance can bias parameters of direct interest to systematists, such as the relationships and divergence times among species.
However, as specifically emphasized by Reid et al.:
In order to reconcile discordance among gene trees and uncover true species relationships, the first gene tree/species tree models assumed that discordance is solely the result of stochastic coalescence of gene lineages within a species phylogeny ... Coalescent stochasticity, however, is not the only source of gene tree discordance. Selection, hybridization, horizontal gene transfer, gene duplication/extinction, recombination, and phylogenetic estimation error can also result in discordance.
They examined this situation by studying the fit of the multispecies coalescent model:
to 25 published data sets. We show that poor model fit is detectable in the majority of data sets; that this poor fit can mislead phylogenetic estimation; and that in some cases it stems from processes of inherent interest to systematists ...
Our analyses suggest that poor fit to the multispecies coalescent model can mislead inference in empirical studies. In the case of recent hybridization, the consequences may be severe, as species divergences are forced to post-date gene divergences ... When topological conflict among coalescent genealogies is the result of ancient hybridization, balancing selection, or gene duplication and extinction, the consequences may be less severe.
In other words, tree-based phylogenetics is inadequate in practice because of gene flow. Within-species genealogies and between-species phylogenies intersect in the concept of a network, not a tree. That is, the multispecies coalescent needs to be based on a network model not a tree model:
The biological processes that generate variation in gene tree topologies should be explicitly modeled, as should relevant dynamics of molecular evolution. Increasingly complex multispecies coalescent models are being implemented, but there are tradeoffs. Some examine gene duplication and extinction or migration but cannot estimate divergence times.
So, current models are inadequate. It will be interesting to see how these approaches develop to incorporate gene flow (reticulation) into what has heretofore been a tree model (modeling only ancestor-descendant relationships), as we are still in need of methods for estimating rooted evolutionary networks.


Reid NM, Hird SM, Brown JM, Pelletier TA, McVay JD, Satler JD, Carstens BC (2014) Poor fit to the multispecies coalescent is widely detectable in empirical data. Systematic Biology 63: 322-333.

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