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Estimating mutation rate: how to count mutations?

The Genetics Society of America
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  • Research Article
  • Design


Mutation rate is an essential parameter in genetic research. Counting the number of mutant individuals provides information for a direct estimate of mutation rate. However, mutant individuals in the same family can share the same mutations due to premeiotic mutation events, so that the number of mutant individuals can be significantly larger than the number of mutation events observed. Since mutation rate is more closely related to the number of mutation events, whether one should count only independent mutation events or the number of mutants remains controversial. We show in this article that counting mutant individuals is a correct approach for estimating mutation rate, while counting only mutation events will result in underestimation. We also derived the variance of the mutation-rate estimate, which allows us to examine a number of important issues about the design of such experiments. The general strategy of such an experiment should be to sample as many families as possible and not to sample much more offspring per family than the reciprocal of the pairwise correlation coefficient within each family. To obtain a reasonably accurate estimate of mutation rate, the number of sampled families needs to be in the same or higher order of magnitude as the reciprocal of the mutation rate.

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