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Estimating effective population size from samples of sequences: inefficiency of pairwise and segregating sites as compared to phylogenetic estimates

  • Joseph Felsenstein (a1)
  • DOI:
  • Published online: 01 April 2009

It is known that under neutral mutation at a known mutation rate a sample of nucleotide sequences, within which there is assumed to be no recombination, allows estimation of the effective size of an isolated population. This paper investigates the case of very long sequences, where each pair of sequences allows a precise estimate of the divergence time of those two gene copies. The average divergence time of all pairs of copies estimates twice the effective population number and an estimate can also be derived from the number of segregating sites. One can alternatively estimate the genealogy of the copies. This paper shows how a maximum likelihood estimate of the effective population number can be derived from such a genealogical tree. The pairwise and the segregating sites estimates are shown to be much less efficient than this maximum likelihood estimate, and this is verified by computer simulation. The result implies that there is much to gain by explicitly taking the tree structure of these genealogies into account.

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