Fitting Discrete Probability Distributions to Evolutionary Events

See allHide authors and affiliations

Science  11 Jun 1971:
Vol. 172, Issue 3988, pp. 1089-1096
DOI: 10.1126/science.172.3988.1089


The assumptions underlying the use of the Poisson distribution are essentially that the probability of an event is small but nearly identical for all occurrences and that the occurrence of an event does not alter the probability of recurrence of such events. These assumptions do not seem to be met for evolutionary events since (i) the probability of fixing nucleotide codon substitutions is not equal for all substitutions at a codon, and probably varies for the same substitution in different lineages; (ii) the probability of fixing codon substitutions varies among positions of a cistron; and (iii) the fixation of a nucleotide codon substitution at one position in a cistron modifies, and may even promote, the fixation of a codon substitution elsewhere along the cistron. Natural selection presumably is the causative factor that acts to modify the probability of a nucleotide codon substitution's being fixed in a population.

The use of the negative binomial distribution is consistent with the evidence that selective pressure on amino acid or nucleotide codon positions varies both among codon positions of a cistron and at a particular position during evolutionary time.

If the number of fixations of nucleotide codon substitutions per position of cistrons encoding cytochromes c are phyletically inferred (phylogeny based on a paleontological record) rather than phenetically inferred (based on paired comparisons of extant species' differences in the absence of a phylogeny) the distribution of these fixation data cannot be described adequately by a single Poisson distribution. The fit of these same data to a negative binomial distribution is very satisfactory.

It has been argued that the fit of phenetically inferred fixation data, which do not take account of parallel or reverse fixations, to the Poisson distribution was supportive evidence for the hypothesis that protein evolution results from the fixation of selectively neutral codon substitutions. This argument now appears to be undercut by the evidence that data on nucleotide codon fixation are more probably distributed according to the negative binomial distribution.

The fact that fixation data can be described by a particular discrete probability distribution does not of itself provide insight into the mechanisms of the evolutionary process. However, the facts—(i) that the assumptions underlying the use of the negative binomial distribution adequately deal with the varying probability of fixing amino acid or nucleotide codon substitutions at and among the positions of a cistron and (ii) that the negative binomial distribution provides an excellent fit for the phyletically inferred fixation data—suggest that the negative binomial is a very appropriate discrete probability distribution for describing evolutionary events.

Amino acids or their nucleotide codon substitutions may be fixed at a position of a cistron as though selectively neutral relative to the codon being replaced, even though the codon position will not be selectively neutral, since many amino acids cannot function there. The negative binomial distribution treats this situation well whereas a single Poisson distribution could only be satisfactory if all codon positions that could vary were selectively neutral.