Continuous gene flow vs. pulse admixture

In the new preprint Ancient genomics: a new view into human prehistory and evolution the authors write:

The geographic structure of these population transformations gave rise to population structure of present-day Europe. For example Anatolian Neolithic ancestry is highest in southern European populations like Sardinians, and lowest in northern European populations (38). Steppe ancestry is at high frequency in north-central Europeans and low in the south. Isolation-by-distance may have contributed to these patterns to some extent, but the contribution must have been small. In much of Europe, extreme population discontinuity was the norm.

Basically, they are contrasting pulse admixtures with continuous gene flow. One stylized model of the settling of the world after the “Out of Africa” migration is that most of the extant population structure was established by about ~20,000 years ago, and much of what has occurred since then has been divergence due to barriers to gene flow, as well as homogenization due to continuous gene flow.

Ancient DNA has basically overthrown that model. There is just too much turnover in some parts of the world in rapid succession for variation to have been patterned exclusively by continuous gene flow. On the other hand, some researchers have felt that pulse admixture is a little overemphasized in the current narrative, in part because it’s a good simplifying model for explaining the origins of daughter populations with roots in two or more parental groups (e.g., model-based clustering and Treemix both assume pulse admixture). That doesn’t mean that this is a correct description of reality, just that it is a tractable one. This sort of concern motivated papers such as A Spatial Framework for Understanding Population Structure and Admixture.

Of course, the “conflict” between people who accept pulse admixture and those who accept continuous gene flow is not a conflict at all. Really it is simply people as a whole attempting to get a better of sense of how frequent pulse admixtures are in the context of a demographic landscape of continuous gene flow. This isn’t the 1970s when selectionists and neutralists argued over small crumbs of data. There’s enough data to test a lot of alternatives and slowly but surely converge upon a consensus.

Which brings me to the question: are these dynamics relevant outside of humans? It strikes me that for plants and other sessile organisms we’d assume that continuous gene flow dominates. At the other extreme, you have birds…who are so mobile that I also believe that continuous gene flow dominates here also. In contrast, land-based tetrapods are much more mobile than plants, but often stymied by temporary barriers such as rivers or rising sea levels. So there would be more pulse admixtures, because continuous gene flow would be interrupted, and then perhaps the barrier would disappear, in which case rapid admixture would occur.

Humans are a curious cause because I believe one reason that pulse admixture might be more prevalent is that we we create our own barrier. Culture.

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