Revisiting the time until fixation of a neutral mutant in a finite population - A coalescent theory approach

Gili Greenbaum*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


Evaluation of the time scale of the fixation of neutral mutations is crucial to the theoretical understanding of the role of neutral mutations in evolution. Diffusion approximations of the Wright-Fisher model are most often used to derive analytic formulations of genetic drift, as well as for the time scales of the fixation of neutral mutations. These approximations require a set of assumptions, most notably that genetic drift is a stochastic process in a continuous allele-frequency space, an assumption appropriate for large populations. Here equivalent approximations are derived using a coalescent theory approach which relies on a different set of assumptions than the diffusion approach, and adopts a discrete allele-frequency space. Solutions for the mean and variance of the time to fixation of a neutral mutation derived from the two approaches converge for large populations but slightly differ for small populations. A Markov chain analysis of the Wright-Fisher model for small populations is used to evaluate the solutions obtained, showing that both the mean and the variance are better approximated by the coalescent approach. The coalescence approximation represents a tighter upper-bound for the mean time to fixation than the diffusion approximation, while the diffusion approximation and coalescence approximation form an upper and lower bound, respectively, for the variance. The converging solutions and the small deviations of the two approaches strongly validate the use of diffusion approximations, but suggest that coalescent theory can provide more accurate approximations for small populations.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)98-102
Number of pages5
JournalJournal of Theoretical Biology
StatePublished - 7 Sep 2015
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2015 Elsevier Ltd.


  • Coalescence
  • Conditional fixation
  • Diffusion approximation
  • Fokker-Planck
  • Genetic drift
  • Population genetics


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