We are devoted to the study of theoretical population genetics. The goal of population genetics is to identify and understand the forces that produce and maintain genetic variation in natural populations. These forces include mutation (also recombination and gene conversion), natural selection, various kinds of population structure (e.g. subdivision with migration), and the random fluctuations of gene frequencies through time known as genetic drift. We study these forces mathematically, using both analysis and computation. We also develop statistical methods to make inferences about these forces from DNA sequences or other kinds of genetic data. For more information about specific areas of research, follow the leads to lab members.


Wakeley J, Nowak M. A two-player iterated survival game. Theoretical Population Biology. 2019;125 :38–55.Abstract

We describe an iterated game between two players, in which the payoff is to survive a number of steps. Expected payoffs are probabilities of survival. A key feature of the game is that individuals have to survive on their own if their partner dies. We consider individuals with hardwired, unconditional behaviors or strategies. When both players are present, each step is a symmetric two-player game. The overall survival of the two individuals forms a Markov chain. As the number of iterations tends to infinity, all probabilities of survival decrease to zero. We obtain general, analytical results for n-step payoffs and use these to describe how the game changes as n increases. In order to predict changes in the frequency of a cooperative strategy over time, we embed the survival game in three different models of a large, well-mixed population. Two of these models are deterministic and one is stochastic. Offspring receive their parent’s type without modification and fitnesses are determined by the game. Increasing the number of iterations changes the prospects for cooperation. All models become neutral in the limit (n ). Further, if pairs of cooperative individuals survive together with high probability, specifically higher than for any other pair and for either type when it is alone, then cooperation becomes favored if the number of iterations is large enough. This holds regardless of the structure of pairwise interactions in a single step. Even if the single-step interaction is a Prisoner’s Dilemma, the cooperative type becomes favored. Enhanced survival is crucial in these iterated evolutionary games: if players in pairs start the game with a fitness deficit relative to lone individuals, the prospects for cooperation can become even worse than in the case of a single-step game.

King L, Wakeley J, Carmi S. A non-zero variance of Tajima’s estimator for two sequences even for infinitely many unlinked loci. Theoretical Population Biology. 2018;122 :22-29.Abstract
The population-scaled mutation rate, θ, is informative on the effective population size and is thus widely used in population genetics. We show that for two sequences and n unlinked loci, the variance of Tajima’s estimator (ˆθ), which is the average number of pairwise differences, does not vanish even as n → ∞. The non-zero variance of ˆθ results from a (weak) correlation between coalescence times even at unlinked loci, which, in turn, is due to the underlying fixed pedigree shared by gene genealogies at all loci. We derive the correlation coefficient under a diploid, discrete-time, Wright–Fisher model, and we also derive a simple, closed-form lower bound. We also obtain empirical estimates of the correlation of coalescence times under demographic models inspired by large-scale human genealogies. While the effect we describe is small (Var [ˆθ]/θ2 ≈ O(N−1e)), it is important to recognize this feature of statistical population genetics, which runs counter to commonly held notions about unlinked loci.
McAvoy A, Fraiman N, Hauert C, Wakeley J, Nowak MA. Public goods games in populations with fluctuating size. Theoretical Population Biology. 2018;121 :72-84.Abstract
Many mathematical frameworks of evolutionary game dynamics assume that the total population size is constant and that selection affects only the relative frequency of strategies. Here,we consider evolutionary game dynamics in an extended Wright–Fisher process with variable population size. In such a scenario, it is possible that the entire population becomes extinct. Survival of the population may depend on which strategy prevails in the game dynamics. Studying cooperative dilemmas, it is a natural feature of such a model that cooperators enable survival, while defectors drive extinction. Although defectors are favored for any mixed population, random drift could lead to their elimination and the resulting pure-cooperator population could survive. On the other hand, if the defectors remain, then the population will quickly go extinct because the frequency of cooperators steadily declines and defectors alone cannot survive. In a mutation–selection model, we find that (i) a steady supply of cooperators can enable long-term population survival, provided selection is sufficiently strong, and (ii) selection can increase the abundance of cooperators but reduce their relative frequency. Thus, evolutionary game dynamics in populations with variable size generate a multifaceted notion of what constitutes a trait’s long-term success.
Wilton PR, Baduel P, Landon MM, Wakeley J. Population structure and coalescence in pedigrees: Comparisons to the structured coalescent and a framework for inference. Theoretical Population Biology. 2017;115 :1-12.Abstract

Contrary to what is often assumed in population genetics, independently segregating loci do not have completely independent ancestries, since all loci are inherited through a single, shared population pedigree. Previous work has shown that the non-independence between gene genealogies of independently segregating loci created by the population pedigree is weak in panmictic populations, and predictions made from standard coalescent theory are accurate for populations that are at least moderately sized. Here, we investigate patterns of coalescence in pedigrees of structured populations. We find that the pedigree creates deviations away from the predictions of the structured coalescent that persist on a longer timescale than in the case of panmictic populations. Nevertheless, we find that the structured coalescent provides a reasonable approximation for the coalescent process in structured population pedigrees so long as migration events are moderately frequent and there are no migration events in the recent pedigree of the sample. When there are migration events in the recent sample pedigree, we find that distributions of coalescence in the sample can be modeled as a mixture of distributions from different initial sample configurations. We use this observation to motivate a maximum-likelihood approach for inferring migration rates and mutation rates jointly with features of the pedigree such as recent migrant ancestry and recent relatedness. Using simulation, we show that our inference framework accurately recovers long-term migration rates in the presence of recent migration events in the sample pedigree.