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Population Genetic Simulations of Complex Phenotypes with Implications for Rare Variant Association Tests


Demographic events and natural selection alter patterns of genetic variation within populations and may play a substantial role in shaping the genetic architecture of complex phenotypes and disease. However, the joint impact of these basic evolutionary forces is often ignored in the assessment of statistical tests of association. Here, we provide a simulation-based framework for generating DNA sequences that incorporates selection and demography with flexible models for simulating phenotypic variation (sfs_coder). This tool also allows the user to perform locus-specific simulations by automatically querying annotated genomic functional elements and genetic maps. We demonstrate the effects of evolutionary forces on patterns of genetic variation by simulating recently inferred models of human selection and demography. We use these simulations to show that the demographic model and locus-specific features, such as the proportion of sites under selection, may have practical implications for estimating the statistical power of sequencing-based rare variant association tests. In particular, for some phenotype models, there may be higher power to detect rare variant associations in African populations compared to non-Africans, but power is considerably reduced in regions of the genome with rampant negative selection. Furthermore, we show that existing methods for simulating large samples based on resampling from a small set of observed haplotypes fail to recapitulate the distribution of rare variants in the presence of rapid population growth (as has been observed in several human populations).

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