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Eur J Hum Genet. 2010 Jul; 18(7): 746–750.
Published online 2010 Feb 24. doi:  10.1038/ejhg.2010.17
PMCID: PMC2987358

Bayes factors in complex genetics


The past few years have seen tremendous progress in our understanding of the genetics underlying complex disease, with associated variants being identified in dozens of traits. Despite the fact that this growing body of empirical evidence unequivocally shows the necessity for extreme levels of significance and large samples sizes, the reasoning behind these requirements is not always appreciated. As genome-wide association studies reach the limits of their resolution in the search for rarer and weaker effects, the need for appropriate design and interpretation will become ever more important. If the genetic analysis of complex disease is to avoid accumulating false positive claims, as it has in the past, then researchers will need to allow for less tangible variables such as power and prior odds rather than relying exclusively on significance when assessing the results of these studies. In this review, the basic foundations of association testing are explained from a Bayesian perspective and the potential benefits of Bayes factors as a means of measuring the weight of evidence in support of an association are described.

Keywords: association, complex genetics, significance, power, prior odds, Bayes factors

Testing for association is one of the most frequently used paradigms in biomedical research. Identifying differences between cases and controls can shed invaluable light on the aetiology of a disease. Although, in principle, any potentially relevant ‘exposure' could be tested for association, measuring exposure to environmental factors is frequently complex, imprecise and subject to bias. Even where established assessment tools exist, it can be difficult to meaningfully measure an environmental exposure. If the effect of an exposure is large, such as the effect of smoking on the risk of developing lung cancer, then crude measures of the exposure can be sufficient.1 Otherwise, the inaccuracies inherent in measuring the exposure may swamp any systematic difference. One of the main advantages of genetics is that an individual's exposure to any given allele can generally be measured with extremely high accuracy. Genotyping data is highly reproducible, both within and across laboratories. It is the accuracy with which an exposure can be measured that ultimately limits the size of effects that can be detected, the more accurate the measurement, the smaller the effect that can be reliably shown.

Why do we need statistics?

As it is never possible to test an exposure in an entire population, we inevitably have to base our assessment of any potentially relevant aetiological factor on its appearance in a sample of cases and a sample of controls. Even when unbiased and truly random, this sampling process can generate an apparent difference between cases and controls regardless of whether there is a difference at the population level. Faced with this unavoidable variation, we need a means to assess the extent to which any observed difference is indicative of a genuine difference at the population level, as opposed to just being a consequence of random variation in the sampling and/or measurement process; that is, we need to be able to infer to what extent we can be sure that any observed association is true as opposed to false positive.

Statistical analysis provides a means to judge the degree of confidence with which we can distinguish between these two opposing positions (hypotheses); genuine association, in which there really is an exposure difference at the population level, and the null hypothesis in which no such difference exists. Assuming that all sources of variation in the estimates of exposure are random and free from bias, the more extreme the case–control difference, the more likely it is that the tested exposure is indeed genuinely associated. The probability of observing any given level of difference, or something more extreme, is defined as the significance (P-value) when it is calculated under the null hypothesis and as the power when it is calculated under the alternative hypothesis of genuine association. Before performing any test for association, it is traditional to set some arbitrary significance cut off value, with the intention to declare results as ‘positive' if they are more extreme than this cut off and ‘negative' if they are less extreme. This thinking gives rise to the familiar ‘two by two' table (see Figure 1).

Figure 1
This figure shows the familiar two by two table, the null and alternative hypotheses in the columns and the two alternate test outcomes in the rows. If we consider a particular class of potentially relevant exposures (for example, genetic variant that ...

What significance threshold should be selected?

Inspection of Figure 1 shows that for any randomly selected potentially relevant factor, before any experiment has been performed, the odds that this factor is genuinely associated with the disease are R/S (the so-called prior odds). After testing if the result is positive (ie if the observed P-value is equal to or is more extreme than the selected significance threshold), then the odds that the tested factor is associated becomes a/b (the posterior odds). Simple algebra confirms that

equation image

This equation shows that the confidence we can place in any positive result is determined by three variables: the prior odds, the significance threshold and the power. The ratio between power and significance indicates how much more likely one is to see data at or exceeding the selected threshold if a tested factor is indeed associated as opposed to if it is unassociated. A significance threshold of 5% (P=0.05) is traditionally used in biomedical research. If power is high (c100%) and the prior odds are even, that is if the null and alternative hypotheses are equally likely before testing, then the odds that a positive result is true (the posterior odds) will be 20:1. In short, when these underlying assumptions are valid, we can expect almost all results that are positive at the 5% level to be true. However, confidence in the 5% threshold must be lowered if the power and/or prior odds are reduced (see below).

Analyzing Eq. (1), it is important to remember that no matter how large the sample size or how strong the effect sought, the power can never be >1. In this ‘best case' scenario (Eq. (2)), it is clear that the Prior Odds are the primary determinant of what significance threshold needs to be set if the Posterior Odds are to be meaningful. If one wishes to be confident that a ‘positive' result is more likely to be true than false, then one has to set a significance threshold commensurate with the Prior Odds. If the prior odds are low, as they are in the genetic analysis of complex disease (see below), then it is essential to set a correspondingly extreme significance threshold. At less extreme significance thresholds, the Posterior Odds will remain <<1 and, therefore, most of the ‘positive' results will inevitably be false.

equation image

Although in any given situation we cannot know the prior odds with certainty, in the genetics of complex disease it has been possible to determine very realistic estimates for this critical parameter, at least as it relates to common variants (genetic variants in which both alleles have a frequency of more than a few percent). The Human Genome Project has shown that there are some 10 million common variants in the human population.2, 3 In comparison, segregation analysis of recurrence risks in complex diseases such as multiple sclerosis (OMIM 126200) suggest that only a modest number of these variants are likely to be relevant in any particular disease.4, 5 Estimating this number is difficult as segregation analysis has little ability to distinguishing between a restricted number of modest effects (odds ratio, OR: 1.2–1.3) and a larger number of small effects (OR: <1.1).5 Furthermore, linkage disequilibrium (LD, the correlation between closely linked variants) means that association may be detectable at flanking variants as well as causal ones; indeed, current genome-wide association screening strategies rely on this indirect testing. On the other hand, as power is inversely related to effect size, the enhanced prior odds applicable if smaller effects prevail would be offset by correspondingly reduced power. The inflation in prior odds resulting from LD is likewise limited by the corresponding reduction in power at indirectly associated variants. Combining these data suggests that a figure of 100 is a reasonable estimate for the effective number of modest effect loci (OR: 1.2–1.3) that are likely to be relevant. These data thus indicate that the prior odds (ie the odds that any randomly selected common variant is relevant) are approximately 100 000 to 1 against.6 Others have used alternate logic to come to the same figure +/− an order of magnitude.7 To secure the same level of confidence in ‘positive' results that we traditionally associate with the 5% significance threshold we must, therefore, set a significance threshold of approximately 5 × 10−7. It is only at this extreme P-value that we can adequately compensate for the very low prior probability that any randomly selected variant is in fact genuinely associated.7 One way to improve the prior odds is to use existing knowledge to guide the selection of variants to study, the so-called candidate gene approach. This ideology has been the cornerstone of the genetic analysis of complex disease for several decades. However, even if all available sources of additional information are used in an exercise called genomic convergence,8 it is unlikely that prior odds can be improved much beyond 1000 to 1 against.9 Assuming the logic used to judge a variant as a candidate is sound, then for strong candidate variants, we might be able to relax the significance threshold to 10−4. It is important to draw a distinction between selecting a variant for study on the basis of some preconceived logic regarding its candidature and inventing an apparent explanation for why a variant identified as part of a screening process might be thought of as a candidate. It seems inescapable that the later will have less effect on the prior odds and will, therefore, provide lower posterior odds.

The need to use an extreme significance threshold in the genetic analysis of complex disease is a consequence of the size of the genome and is uninfluenced by the strength of the effects sought. Working on isolated populations or in clinically more refined sub-groups, in which more favourable allele frequencies and/or effect sizes might be hoped for, does not negate the need for an extreme significance threshold. Even if the theorized advantages of these study designs are correct, and the increase in power is able to offset any accompanying reduction in sample size, the required significance threshold cannot be relaxed. Indeed, as most of these strategies are only likely to improve the power to find some of the relevant risk alleles, it could be argued that they effectively reduce the prior odds and, therefore, require even more extreme significance.

In the context of this absolute requirement for an extreme significance threshold, two questions immediately spring to mind.

What sample size should be used?

The sample size needed to ensure that there is adequate power to identify association at the required significance threshold depends on the strength of the effects being sought. Again, although we cannot know with any certainty what effect sizes will be relevant in a complex disease, whole genome linkage analysis provides some important information, which sets a crude upper limit on these effects (this limit is less restrictive for rarer alleles). After more than a decade of whole genome linkage screening, it is evident that very few common risk alleles are detectable by linkage. In multiple sclerosis, for example, the high-density single-nucleotide polymorphism (SNP)-based whole genome linkage screen performed by the International Multiple Sclerosis Genetics Consortium only found one region of linkage, that due to the well-established association with the *1501 allele of the DRB1 gene from the major histocompatibility complex.10 No other significant linkage was identified in this well-powered screen. The results from this screen and similar studies in other complex diseases indicate that apart from the few loci, such as those identified by linkage, common variants influencing the risk of complex traits are extremely unlikely to increase risk by more than a factor of 2.0, and most likely by <1.5. At this level, at least 2000 cases and 2000 controls are required to provide power to identify association with a common variant at a significance threshold of 5 × 10−7.7 See Supplementary data file for more information.6

How should we interpret intermediate results?

Comparing and contrasting the results from association studies is not always straightforward, as the strength of evidence for association is a complex reflection of both the observed P-value and the power of the study. This issue is especially relevant for results falling in the intermediate range, that is in which the P-value has more extreme significance than the familiar 5%, but does not quite reach the 5 × 10–7 level. Fortunately, Bayes factors (BFs) provide a single measure of the strength of evidence for association, which appropriately integrates the influences of the observed P-value and the power of the study, enabling meaningful ranking of results within and across the studies.

Bayes factors

For a given set of observed data, Eq. (3) shows the relationship between the posterior odds and the prior odds

equation image

where P1 is the probability of observing this particular set of data if the tested variant is genuinely associated at the population level and P0 is the probability of seeing the same data if the tested variant is not associated (ie under the null hypothesis). This ratio is known as a Bayes Factor (BF) and is akin to the ratio of power and significance in Eq. (1). The difference here is that the probabilities P1 and P0 relate to the particular set of data that has been observed rather than the probability of seeing data at or more extreme than a selected threshold. In many respects, Log10(BF) might be thought of as the association study equivalent of a LOD score in a linkage analysis. Both Log10(BF) and LOD scores are Log10 measures of how much more likely it is to see the observed data if the tested variant is genuinely relevant as opposed to the null. Empirical data from linkage analysis has confirmed the theoretical prediction that LOD scores need to be >3.6 if they are to compensate for the low prior odds of linkage and have a high posterior odds of being true.11 Likewise, we can see that Log10(BF) must be [dbl greater-than sign]5 if a result is to adequately compensate for the even lower prior odds of association.

The difficulty of course is calculating the values of P1 and P0, especially the former. As we cannot know for certain what effect is attributable to any given locus, we can only calculate the BF for a given set of data by making assumptions about the underlying effects. If we have tested a bi-allelic variant such as a common SNP with a minor allele frequency of 10%, then if we assume a particular heterozygote OR (eg 1.2) and genetic model, the calculated BF will tell us something about the extent to which the observed data supports this particular possibility. If the Log10(BF) value calculated in this way is [dbl greater-than sign]5, then we can be confident that the observation is likely to be true positive; the more extreme the BF value, the more likely it is to be true. For less extreme Log10(BF) values (ie those ≤5), although the posterior odds will be <1, the results can at least be ranked against other tests in terms of strength of evidence. The P-value alone does not always allow this clarity (see Box 1). Further mathematical and practical detail concerning the calculation of BFs is provided in Supplementary data file.

Box 1

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If we make the simplifying assumption that all the risk alleles in a complex disease have the same OR and risk allele frequency, then we can produce Figure 2, indicating the posterior odds that would be conferred by any observed P-value in this simplified scenario. This figure illustrates the futility of small (under powered) studies. The curves for small studies are close to horizontal, indicating that whatever the result may be, there is little change in the odds in favour of association. If the P-value from such a study fails to reach nominal significance, then nothing has been excluded. Likewise, even if the P-value exceeds the nominal significance threshold, it is highly likely to be false positive. If the P-value is very extreme (eg exceeds the 5 × 10–7 threshold), then one should be highly suspicious of the study methodology. As there is little power to see this level of significance in a study of this size, the result is most likely to reflect some unappreciated bias. The alternative view, that the study has by ‘good luck' identified a common allele with a very large effect, is inconsistent with available linkage data and should, therefore, be viewed with considerable suspicion.

Figure 2
The figure shows the relationship between the Posterior Odds that a result is true (plotted on a Log10 scale on the y axis) and the observed P-value (plotted on a Log10 scale on the x axis). Five sample sizes are listed in the legend; in each, the number ...

Very larger sample sizes, on the other hand, not only provide substantial power to identify levels of significance associated with high posterior odds, but also enable variants, which fail to reach nominal significance to be excluded. For sample sizes in the 10 000 case range, variants that have P-values of >5% have Log10(BF) values that are < −2, indicating that the odds that this variant exerts on the tested effect, have been reduced by more than a factor of 100. The slope and position of these curves are critically dependent on the underlying model assumed in calculating the BFs (see Supplementary data). If we consider smaller underlying effect sizes, then even the 10 000 case line will start to lean over towards the horizontal, indicating that for a study to be discriminating in identifying much smaller effects, even larger samples sizes will be necessary. As we do not actually know the underlying effect sizes, one way to deal with this uncertainty is to calculate P0 and P1 for each possible effect size and then integrate these values, weighting each by the probability of that effect size. This process requires us to make some prior assumption about the probability of each effect size. A normal distribution of effects sizes has been suggested such that 30% of the effects have an OR of >1.2, but only 2% have an OR of >1.5 etc.7 The problem with the BFs calculated in this manner is that most of the underlying effect sizes considered are very small and, therefore, for sample sizes such as those considered in Figure 2, there is little power to identify most of the presumed underlying effects. As a result, such BFs are little different between these studies.

The important influence of allele frequency on power, and, therefore, the BF associated with any given P-value, is illustrated in Figure 3. As we would anticipate, there is very little difference in these curves for common alleles, but as the power drops off significantly for variants with minor allele frequencies of less than a few percent, the curves for these variants are substantially more horizontal.

Figure 3
The figure shows the relationship between the Posterior Odds that a result is true (plotted on a Log10 scale on the y axis) and the observed P-value (plotted on a Log10 scale on the x axis). The curves are based on a study using 2000 cases and 2000 controls ...


For many years, researchers in complex genetics have naively relied on the traditional interpretation of association studies and assumed that P-values of <5% indicate true positive findings regardless of the sample size considered. It has taken the field some time to realize that two inescapable issues undermine this position and demand a more stringent analysis. First, the extremely low prior odds that any given common variant is relevant (c100 000:1 against) means that a correspondingly more extreme significance threshold must be used before the posterior odds can reliably be assumed to be >1. The fact that complex genetics requires P-values of <5 × 10−7 to produce the same confidence that we traditional associate with the 5% threshold has been a bitter pill to swallow. The second and equally difficult issue is that of effect size. The fact that with very few exceptions, whole genome linkage analysis has failed to identify genes of relevance in complex disease places an upper limit on the size of effects that can be attributable to common variants. These modest effect sizes, especially when combined with the requirement for extreme significance, mean that sample sizes have to be large. For many years, we have based our association studies on a few hundred cases and controls in the belief that the effects being sort would more than double the risk. In reality, very few such loci exist in any given complex trait, and it is now clear that most relevant common variants have OR of <1.3. For effects of this size, studies must involve thousands rather than hundreds of samples.

The fact that extreme levels of significance are necessary to compensate for the low prior odds and that very large sample sizes are needed to provide sufficient power to identify modest effect sizes at these high levels of significance has set a new standard, but has also left a gap in which interpretation of results is less clear. What should we make of the studies that generate intermediate P-values (<5% but >5 × 10−7)? Interpretation requires consideration of both the P-value and the power, which in turn is influenced by sample size and allele frequency. Fortunately, BFs provide a single measure, which integrates these various influences and provide a meaningful single measure regarding the strength of evidence provided by any observed data. Considering the BFs in relation to any particular signal strength allows one to infer to what extent that particular effects has been supported or even excluded by the observed data. The fact that BFs provide a clearer measure for the weight of evidence in favour of association means that they will also help interpretation of whether or not candidate biological pathways are enriched for modest associations. It should be noted that the account presented here relates to case–control studies and that subtle, but potentially important, differences might apply in calculating the BFs for studies with alternate designs.

The Bayesian framework described above is not the only way to interpret the data emerging from complex genetics and is by no means definitive. The method used to estimate the prior odds is crude and the power calculations are based on mathematically convenient models, which have no obvious biological counter part.12 The frequentist framework provides an alternate way to interpret these data in this approach the significance threshold is adjusted to correct for multiple testing (using methods such as the Bonferroni correction13 or the false discovery rate14) and thereby control the family-wise error rate. Although a frequentist interpretation has the advantage that it avoids the need to estimate prior odds, it turns out to be no more robust, as estimating multiplicity is predictably as crude as estimating prior odds.15, 16, 17 Furthermore, it turns out that the recommended significance thresholds emerging from frequentist analysis are virtually identical to those provided by Bayesian analysis.18, 19 The convergence of these various interpretations is unsurprising as ultimately each is simply trying to adequately compensate for the enormous size of the human genome. Which ever framework of interpretation is preferred it is clear from the available empirical evidence20 that the recommended thresholds are valid and ignored at a researcher's peril.


This work was supported by the Wellcome Trust (084702/Z/08/Z), the Medical Research Council (G0700061), the National Institute of Health (RO1 NS049477) and the Cambridge NIHR Biomedical Research Centre. I thank all my colleagues in the International Multiple Sclerosis Genetics Consortium (IMSGC) and the Wellcome Trust Case Control Consortium (WTCCC) for their support and tireless efforts to move the genetics of multiple sclerosis forward. I would especially thank Hywel Jones, An Goris, David Clayton and Maria Ban for their careful scrutiny of the manuscript and their helpful comments.


The author declares no conflict of interest.


Supplementary Information accompanies the paper on European Journal of Human Genetics website (http://www.nature.com/ejhg)

Supplementary Material

Supplementary Material


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