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Methods and models for the analysis of genetic variation across species using large-scale genomic data


Understanding how different evolutionary processes shape genetic variation within and between species is an important question in population genetics. The advent of next generation sequencing has allowed for many theories and hypotheses to be tested explicitly with data. However, questions such as what evolutionary processes affect neutral divergence (DNA differences between species) or genetic variation in different regions of the genome (such as on autosomes versus sex chromosomes) or how many genetic variants contribute to complex traits are still outstanding. In this dissertation, I utilized different large-scale genomic datasets and developed statistical methods to determine the role of natural selection on genetic variation between species, sex-biased evolutionary processes on shaping patterns of genetic variation on the X chromosome and autosomes, and how population history, mutation, and natural selection interact to control complex traits. First, I used genome-wide divergence data between multiple pairs of species ranging in divergence time to show that natural selection has reduced divergence at neutral sites that are linked to those under direct selection. To determine explicitly whether and to what extent linked selection and/or mutagenic recombination could account for the pattern of neutral divergence across the genome, I developed a statistical method and applied it to human-chimp neutral divergence dataset. I showed that a model including both linked selection and mutagenic recombination resulted in the best fit to the empirical data. However, the signal of mutagenic recombination could be coming from biased gene conversion.

Comparing genetic diversity between the X chromosome and the autosomes could provide insights into whether and how sex-biased processes have affected genetic variation between different genomic regions. For example, X/A diversity ratio greater than neutral expectation could be due to more X chromosomes than expected and could be a result of mating practices such as polygamy where there are more reproducing females than males. I next utilized whole-genome sequences from dogs and wolves and found that X/A diversity is lower than neutral expectation in both dogs and wolves in ancient time-scales, arguing for evolutionary processes resulting in more males reproducing compared to females. However, within breed dogs, patterns of population differentiation suggest that there have been more reproducing females, highlighting effects from breeding practices such as popular sire effect where one male can father many offspring with multiple females.

In medical genetics, a complete understanding of the genetic architecture is essential to unravel the genetic basis of complex traits. While genome wide association studies (GWAS) have discovered thousands of trait-associated variants and thus have furthered our understanding of the genetic architecture, key parameters such as the number of causal variants and the mutational target size are still under-studied. Further, the role of natural selection in shaping the genetic architecture is still not entirely understood. In the last chapter, I developed a computational method called InGeAr to infer the mutational target size and explore the role of natural selection on affecting the variant’s effect on the trait. I found that the mutational target size differs from trait to trait and can be large, up to tens of megabases. In addition, purifying selection is coupled with the variant’s effect on the trait. I discussed how these results support the omnigenic model of complex traits.

In summary, in this dissertation, I utilized different types of large genomic dataset, from genome-wide divergence data to whole genome sequence data to GWAS data to develop models and statistical methods to study how different evolutionary processes have shaped patterns of genetic variation across the genome.

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