- Methodology article
- Open Access
Accurate and fast methods to estimate the population mutation rate from error prone sequences
© Knudsen and Miyamoto; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. 2009
- Received: 25 February 2009
- Accepted: 11 August 2009
- Published: 11 August 2009
The population mutation rate (θ) remains one of the most fundamental parameters in genetics, ecology, and evolutionary biology. However, its accurate estimation can be seriously compromised when working with error prone data such as expressed sequence tags, low coverage draft sequences, and other such unfinished products. This study is premised on the simple idea that a random sequence error due to a chance accident during data collection or recording will be distributed within a population dataset as a singleton (i.e., as a polymorphic site where one sampled sequence exhibits a unique base relative to the common nucleotide of the others). Thus, one can avoid these random errors by ignoring the singletons within a dataset.
This strategy is implemented under an infinite sites model that focuses on only the internal branches of the sample genealogy where a shared polymorphism can arise (i.e., a variable site where each alternative base is represented by at least two sequences). This approach is first used to derive independently the same new Watterson and Tajima estimators of θ, as recently reported by Achaz  for error prone sequences. It is then used to modify the recent, full, maximum-likelihood model of Knudsen and Miyamoto , which incorporates various factors for experimental error and design with those for coalescence and mutation. These new methods are all accurate and fast according to evolutionary simulations and analyses of a real complex population dataset for the California seahare.
In light of these results, we recommend the use of these three new methods for the determination of θ from error prone sequences. In particular, we advocate the new maximum likelihood model as a starting point for the further development of more complex coalescent/mutation models that also account for experimental error and design.
- Ancestral Sequence
- Internal Branch
- Evolutionary Simulation
- Basal Branch
- External Branch
The population mutation rate (θ) remains one of the most fundamental parameters in genetics, ecology, and evolutionary biology [3–5]. This interest in θ derives from the fact that this parameter measures the effective size (N e ) and whole-locus mutation rate (μ) of a population, which are of great importance in understanding its demography and history. Specifically, θ is a compound parameter that is calculated as the product of 2pN e μ (with p = 1 or 2 for haploids and diploids, respectively). Correspondingly, a number of alternative methods are available to estimate θ from a population sample of allelic sequences [6–8]. These alternative methods range from relatively simple summary statistics (moment methods) to full coalescent/mutation models. Indeed, the estimation of θ remains central to even the most complex coalescent/mutation models that are otherwise concerned with the determination of other population genetic parameters (e.g., for growth, migration, and recombination).
A population sample of sequences is obtained from interbreeding or potentially interbreeding individuals and is therefore usually associated with a small number of mutations [9–12]. Thus, when estimating θ from a population sample, sequence errors can pose a real problem, since their numbers can begin to approach or even surpass those for the mutations [13–19]. This problem becomes particularly acute when working with error prone data such as expressed sequence tags (EST), low coverage draft sequences, and other such unfinished products [20, 21]. For example, an error rate of one mistake per every 500 nucleotides (e.g., as for an EST dataset obtained from single sequencing passes) will make a significant contribution to the observed variation among sequences that differ because of mutations by <1 to 2%. If uncorrected, such errors can lead to an inflated estimate of θ and even erroneous conclusions about the biology of their population [1, 2, 18, 22].
This study relies on the simple premise that the random mistakes of error prone sequences can be avoided by ignoring the singletons within their population sample. This strategy is first used to obtain independently the same new Watterson  and Tajima  estimators of θ, which were recently reported by Achaz  for error prone sequences. This approach is then implemented in the recent maximum likelihood (ML) model of Knudsen and Miyamoto , which incorporates various factors of experimental error and design with those for coalescence and mutation. By relying on only shared polymorphisms, these three new approaches allow for more accurate estimates of θ. However, this greater accuracy comes with a cost as singletons due to actual mutations are ignored along with those due to random errors. To assess this tradeoff, the three new methods are tested against each other and their original predecessors that count singletons with evolutionary simulations and/or analyses of a real population dataset for the California seahare (Aplysia californica). These tests document that these new approaches offer reliable and fast alternatives for the determination of θ from error prone sequences.
Three new methods for estimating θ from error prone sequences
Infinite sites model
As in their original versions, the new Watterson, Tajima, and Knudsen/Miyamoto methods rely on the infinite sites model to accommodate a neutral mutation process [27, 28]. The infinite sites model assumes that only a single mutation can occur at any homologous position of the population sample. Thus, each variable site will be represented by only two bases that subdivide the sampled sequences into two non-overlapping subsets consisting of those with the first nucleotide versus the remainder with the second base. Correspondingly, each mutation will map to a specific branch within the sample genealogy, which thereby partitions the sequences into their two non-overlapping subsets. For example, the shared polymorphism at position 3 in Figure 1 is attributable to a unique mutation along the internal branch that partitions sequences I and II from III, IV, and V.
As random errors are treated as rare chance events, they are also modeled in this study along with the mutations by the infinite sites process. Thus, only a single random error or mutation is allowed at any site of the sampled sequences. In turn, each random error is limited to a single sequence (and therefore to a particular singleton) in contrast to a mutation that can also result in a shared polymorphism (Figure 1). The reason is that random errors arise during the experimental determination and recording of individual sequences, whereas mutations occur at specific points within the sample genealogy. Thus, a mutation along an internal branch of the genealogy will result in a new base that will be shared by two or more of its descendant sequences.
New Watterson estimator (θ' W )
A new Watterson estimator that avoids singletons (and thereby random sequence errors, θ' W ) can now be derived from Equation (4) by adjusting both its numerator and denominator. The numerator is easily adjusted by counting only the shared polymorphic sites in the original dataset (n' s ). Although more complicated, the denominator can also be readily adjusted by including in its calculation only the lengths of the internal branches where shared polymorphisms can arise (see below).
Our Equation (6) is equivalent to equation (10) of Fu and Li , apart from our use of different symbols and terms and of time as scaled by N e generations (rather than generations alone). Thus, as previously noted by them, the total length of the external branches where a singleton can occur is independent of the original number of sampled sequences. Fu and Li  also obtained the variance for the total length of the external branches as their equation (14).
In words, θ' W ignores the singletons (and thereby random errors) in the original dataset, while restricting the total branch length calculation to only those internal internodes where a shared polymorphism can arise.
Apart from our use of different symbols and terms for calculating the denominator, our Equation (8) is equivalent to equation (13) of Achaz . Achaz  also derived his equation B22 for the calculation of the associated variance for n' s (i.e., his Var [S-η1]).
New Tajima estimator (θ' T )
The Tajima and Watterson estimators have the same expected value of θ, even though the former is based on the total differences between each sampled sequence pair whereas the latter is obtained from the total number of segregating sites within the sample. Their different summaries of the observed variation are the basis of Tajima's D that tests for departures from the standard neutral model  (see also [31, 33, 34]).
Our Equation (12) for θ' T is equivalent to equation (15) of Achaz , except for our use of different symbols and total π' ij (rather than average π' ij ) for the population sample. Achaz  also derived his equation B23 for the calculation of the associated variance for average π' ij [i.e., his Var[π-η1]).
New Knudsen/Miyamoto model (θ' KM )
Knudsen and Miyamoto (, hereafter referred to as "KM") developed a full coalescent/mutation model that accounts for three specific factors of experimental error and design: (a) For random sequence errors, (b) For unobserved polymorphisms due to missing data, and (c) For the uncertain assignment of the multiple sequencing reads for a diploid or polyploid individual to its two or more homologues. Their KM model uses recursion to calculate an exact probability of the population sample under the standard Fisher  and Wright  model for reproduction (hereafter, referred to as "FW") and the infinite sites process for both mutations and random sequence errors [37, 38]. Their model relies on ML to estimate θ and the expected number of errors per full length sequence (ε).
Definitions of the parameters and factors used in Equation (13) of the KM model
Parameter or factor
The number of segregating sites within the current set of sampled and/or ancestral sequences
Counts the number of "singletons" for sampled or ancestral sequence i. Here, "singleton" refers both to the derived mutations of the shared polymorphisms for the sampled sequences as well as to those of the observed singletons (in the strict sense) within the original dataset (Figure 3).
P c (α i (S))
Probability of α i (S), which is the current set of sampled and/or ancestral sequences prior to a mutation in sequence i
P c (β ij (S))
Probability of β ij (S), which is the current set of sampled and/or ancestral sequences after the coalescence of combinable sequences i and j (s i ~ s j ; see below)
P c (S)
Probability of S, which is the current ordered set of n sampled and/or ancestral sequences (s1, s2, ..., s n ) during a particular coalescent interval in the genealogy
s i , s j
Sampled and/or ancestral sequences i and j (where i ≠ j)
s i ~ s j
Signifies that the available regions of sampled and/or ancestral sequences i and j are at least compatible and that the two are therefore combinable (i.e., can coalesce)
|s i |
Measures the relative degree to which sampled or ancestral sequence i is a complete or partial sequence. Thus, Σ i |s i | summarizes the total available length of all sampled and/or ancestral sequences during a particular coalescent interval.
Summarizes the current number of sampled and/or ancestral sequences during a particular coalescent interval in the genealogy
The purpose of Σ i |s i | in Equation (13) is to track the total available length of all sampled and/or ancestral sequences for the detection of mutations as one works backwards in time. The corresponding use of |s i | in the bottom line of Equation (13) allows for the adjustment of σ i due to unobserved polymorphisms resulting from missing data.
The KM model uses only Equation (13) when working with error free sequences. In turn, this model also relies on equation (4) of Knudsen and Miyamoto  when dealing with error prone sequences. This additional equation of the KM model assumes that the random errors are uniformly distributed along the sampled sequences and that their total number is Poisson distributed with an intensity of λ = ε Σ i |s i |. The inclusion of Σ i |s i | in the calculation of λ allows for the adjustment of this error rate to account for incomplete sampled sequences.
In contrast to its predecessor, the KM' model uses only Equation (13) when working with either error prone or error free sequences. As for the new Watterson and Tajima estimators, the KM' model operates by counting only those internal branches of the genealogy where a mutation will result in a shared polymorphism (Figure 4b). The sampled sequences are rescored as unknowns with empty intervals (∅), as is the sequence of the common ancestor for the (n - 1) basal group of each asymmetrical genealogy (Figure 2). Correspondingly, |s i | is then reset to 0.0 for these sequences. The KM' model ignores the external and basal branches of the genealogy, where a mutation will result in a singleton, by multiplying σ i for each sampled and/or (n - 1) ancestral sequence by |s i | = 0.0 in Equation (13). In this way, the KM' model discounts the singletons in favor of the shared polymorphisms within the dataset without the use of equation (4) and its associated parameters (e.g., λ and ε) of the original KM model.
For sampled sequences without missing data, the previous explanation is complete as to how the KM' model corrects for the branches of the genealogy where a mutation will result in a singleton. However, for incomplete sampled sequences, the "above and below" test of the KM' model also becomes necessary to correct for the regions of each common ancestral sequence where a mutation in its internal branch will lead to a singleton, rather than to a shared polymorphism, because of this missing information (Figure 4b). In this test, "below" refers to those sampled sequences that belong to the monophyletic group of the common ancestor in question. "Above" then corresponds to the remaining, more distantly related, sampled sequences. In Figure 4b, the two leftmost sampled sequences are direct descendants of the first, leftmost, common ancestor, whereas the other three are not. Thus, these two sampled sequences lie "below," whereas the other three occur "above" the internal branch for this leftmost common ancestor.
The above and below test checks whether comparable information for a region is known for at least two, descendant, sampled sequences below and at least two, more distantly related, sampled sequences above an internal branch in the genealogy. If not, then a mutation within this region of the ancestral sequence that corresponds to this internal branch will result in a false singleton within the original dataset. For example, a mutation within the first 20% of the leftmost common ancestor in Figure 4 will result in a false singleton of the second sampled sequence rather than in a true shared polymorphism of the first and second. The problem is that the leftmost sampled sequence is missing comparable information for the detection of this mutation as a shared change in the leftmost common ancestor. The above and below test corrects for such regions of the common ancestral sequences during the rescoring of their closed intervals and |s i |. As the first 20% of the leftmost common ancestor fails the below half of this test, the KM' model disregards this region during the recalculation of its closed interval as (0:2:1.0) and |s i | = 0.8 (Figure 4b).
Evolutionary simulations and A. californica dataset
To test the three new procedures, evolutionary simulations were conducted according to standard methods . Two hundred datasets apiece were simulated for eight or 16 sequences of length 500 from a single population under the baseline conditions of the standard FW and infinite sites models with θ = 1, 2, 4, or 8. In addition to these baseline conditions, sequence errors were introduced as four or eight randomly placed changes among the eight and 16 sequences, respectively, for an expected ε of 0.5. Estimates of θ were then obtained for the 200 datasets of each tested combination with the FW model and the original and new Watterson estimators, Tajima estimators, and KM and KM' models.
Results of the evolutionary simulations
Watterson and Tajima estimators
0.96 ± 0.10
0.76 ± 0.10
1.10 ± 0.15
0.98 ± 0.10
1.12 ± 0.16
1.02 ± 0.12
1.10 ± 0.15
3.49 ± 0.23
0.90 ± 0.14
0.96 ± 0.15
2.63 ± 0.1 5
0.94 ± 0.15
2.04 ± 0.13
0.95 ± 0.16
1.02 ± 0.10
0.84 ± 0.09
1.01 ± 0.12
1.00 ± 0.09
0.99 ± 0.11
0.97 ± 0.10
0.96 ± 0.12
5.10 ± 0.28
0.99 ± 0.12
1.02 ± 0.13
3.43 ± 0.16
1.03 ± 0.13
2.01 ± 0.13
1.01 ± 0.13
1.92 ± 0.17
1.51 ± 0.17
1.80 ± 0.25
1.92 ± 0.18
1.81 ± 0.25
1.89 ± 0.20
1.82 ± 0.26
4.38 ± 0.26
1.80 ± 0.20
1.92 ± 0.26
3.44 ± 0.19
1.91 ± 0.26
2.91 ± 0.20
1.92 ± 0.25
2.06 ± 0.16
1.78 ± 0.15
2.02 ± 0.19
2.04 ± 0.16
2.04 ± 0.20
2.09 ± 0.19
2.10 ± 0.22
6.19 ± 0.33
1.88 ± 0.17
1.92 ± 0.19
4.32 ± 0.20
1.92 ± 0.19
2.95 ± 0.20
1.96 ± 0.22
4.05 ± 0.44
4.27 ± 0.35
4.27 ± 0.53
4.31 ± 0.39
4.32 ± 0.54
3.89 ± 0.46
5.62 ± 0.33
4.09 ± 0.53
5.12 ± 0.38
4.13 ± 0.54
4.00 ± 0.31
4.12 ± 0.28
4.21 ± 0.38
4.24 ± 0.36
4.28 ± 0.41
3.82 ± 0.31
6.23 ± 0.27
3.87 ± 0.35
4.84 ± 0.32
3.86 ± 0.38
7.88 ± 0.71
7.75 ± 0.49
7.87 ± 0.78
7.78 ± 0.55
7.85 ± 0.77
7.90 ± 0.85
9.67 ± 0.63
8.38 ± 1.03
9.22 ± 0.73
8.39 ± 1.03
7.82 ± 0.54
8.08 ± 0.49
8.20 ± 0.72
8.26 ± 0.69
8.32 ± 0.82
8.00 ± 0.58
10.73 ± 0.52
8.31 ± 0.71
9.57 ± 0.68
8.60 ± 0.81
In contrast, the KM model underestimates θ when the sequences are errorless (Table 2). Furthermore, this tendency to underestimate θ is also evident (although not significant) when the sequences contain errors (simulations A2, A4, B2, and B4; see also  for additional cases). In these situations, mutations are sometimes counted as random errors, thereby deflating their estimates of θ. In cases where few to no random errors are expected (i.e., finished sequences), one can first perform a likelihood ratio test to determine if ε = 0 . If this null hypothesis cannot be rejected, then the KM analysis should be restricted to only Equation (13). However, if ε > 0 according to this likelihood ratio test, then equation (4) of Knudsen and Miyamoto  is also needed and the user of the KM model must remain aware that her/his estimate of θ most likely includes some slight downward bias.
Unlike their original versions, the new Watterson estimator, Tajima estimator, and KM' model all consistently recover the true θ in the simulations both with and without errors (Table 2). Furthermore, these three methods also avoid the tendency of the KM model to underestimate θ due to unnecessary or "greedy" parameters for random errors. In particular, the reliance of the KM' model on one less equation [(4)] and fewer parameters (e.g., λ and ε) makes it much simpler and less prone to over-parameterizations than its predecessor.
The mean estimates of θ for the new Watterson estimator, Tajima estimator, and KM' model are also generally associated with greater standard deviations than those for their original versions (Table 2). The proximal reason for these increased standard deviations is that the elimination of singletons results in the loss of some actual mutations along with the random errors. However, this cost of the three new methods appears to be relatively small, given that their standard deviations are never twice as great as those for their original versions (with these discrepancies usually being much smaller). Indeed, the standard deviations for the three new methods are less than or equal to those of their counterparts in four cases (simulations A2, A4, and B4 for θ' W and A4 for θ' T in Table 2). Perhaps more surprising is that the standard deviations for the new Watterson and Tajima estimators are comparable to those for the KM' model, particularly when θ = 1 or 2. These similarities in their standard deviations are surprising given that the KM' model is a full ML model.
As summary statistics, the original and new Watterson and Tajima estimators are all computationally fast, requiring much less than 1 CPU second on a 2.4 GHz Pentium 4 CPU to analyze each of the simulated datasets. More importantly, the KM' model is much faster than the FW and KM models as documented by its completed analyses of the more complex datasets (simulations C1 to C4 and D1 to D4 in Table 2). In contrast, the FW and KM models fail to complete their analyses of these more complex datasets due to time and memory constraints. The KM' model is much faster than the FW and KM models, because it relies on only shared polymorphic sites. Less variable positions results in faster coalescences and fewer choices as one works back through the coalescent/mutation recursion of Equation (13).
The A. californica dataset was the original motivating force behind the development of the KM model . Thus, this real dataset was also analyzed with the KM' model to test further its performance against that of its predecessor. This dataset consists of 18 sequencing reads for six diploid individuals from a laboratory population of the California seahare at the Laboratory for Marine Bioscience, University of Florida (LL Moroz and AB Kohn, unpublished data). Three cloned inserts were sequenced from each individual as a pair of single sequencing passes starting from both ends of an internal segment of 1731 base pairs for the protein-coding region of the nuclear FMRF gene. These pairs of passes overlap in the middle for nine sequences, but at most by only 58 bases. Thus, these 18 essentially single-pass sequences contain many random errors and some missing data and their assignments to the two homologues of each diploid remain uncertain (even though their individual sources are known). Correspondingly, the KM analysis of this dataset with 44 singletons and 10 shared polymorphisms required the full use of its factors for experimental error and design (i.e., for random errors, missing data, and uncertain homologue assignments).
A full ML analysis of this complex dataset by the KM model proved too time and memory consuming and a two step procedure was therefore adopted instead whereby the number of errors was first ML estimated followed by the determination of θ for this ML value . This heuristic approach resulted in an estimate of θ KM = 6.32 for this sample, which still took more than 12 hours to complete on the same CPU as for the simulations (see above). In contrast, a full ML analysis of this dataset by the KM' model using the same factors for experimental design is much faster as it took less than 1 hour on this CPU to obtain a similar estimate of θ' KM = 7.17. Correspondingly, nucleotide diversity (π) for this sample is calculated as (7.17/1731 positions) = 0.0041 mutations per site. To summarize, the KM and KM' models both support similar estimates of θ for this real dataset, but the latter (as in the evolutionary simulations in Table 2) is much faster as confirmed by its completed, full, ML analysis.
Expressed sequence tags, low coverage draft sequences, and other such unfinished products are known to contain random errors due to chance accidents during their data collection and recording [1, 11, 21, 23]. However, such sequences often constitute the only available allelic information for a population and methods to deal with their random mistakes are therefore needed to obtain accurate estimates of θ from these error prone data. This study is based on the simple premise that random sequence errors are distributed as singletons. Thus, one can avoid the random mistakes of error prone sequences by ignoring their singletons in favor of their shared polymorphisms (Figures 2 and 4).
This strategy is implemented in the new Watterson estimator, Tajima estimator, and KM' model. These new methods are all accurate and fast according to their evolutionary simulations and analysis of the real complex dataset for A. californica (Table 2). These methods come with the cost of increased standard deviations, but this price appears small or even negligible compared to their advantages of significantly improved accuracy and/or computational speed. Obviously, additional evolutionary simulations and applications to real datasets are now needed to evaluate more fully under what conditions the removal of singletons is warranted in light of this tradeoff. Nevertheless, the current successes with the new Watterson estimator, Tajima estimator, and KM' model support our recommendation that these three methods be given serious consideration when estimating θ from error prone sequences.
Unlike the Watterson and Tajima estimators that represent summary statistics, the KM and KM' models both constitute full ML models that offer the framework for the further incorporation of other experimental and population genetic factors . In particular, such further developments are encouraged for the KM' model in light of its current successes in the evolutionary simulations and A. californica analysis (Table 2). For example, biased errors within a sample due to the systematic misreading of specific bases during DNA sequencing, the postmortem biochemical degradation of ancient DNA, and/or other such sources of error can be accommodated by a finite sites process that allows for repeated mistakes as well as mutations at the same sequence positions [14–16, 40]. Likewise, additional factors to account for other population genetic processes such as recombination (which is most likely the most important parameter overlooked in this study of the nuclear FMRF gene for A. californica) can be accommodated by the use of ancestral recombination graphs . Inevitably, these more complex versions of the KM' model will require the use of sampling based procedures for their implementation (e.g., Markov chain Monte Carlo approximations), since the current use of direct ML evaluation will remain practical for only the smaller datasets and simpler models [14, 42–44].
We thank Leonid L Moroz and Andrea B Kohn for the use of their unpublished A. californica dataset; William Farmerie and Michele R Tennant for their suggestions about this research; the Carlsberg Foundation for its fellowship to BK; and the University of Florida for its support. A copy of our computer program to estimate θ' W , θ' T , and θ' KM is available upon request from BK.
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