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Heredity (Edinb). 2006 Nov;97(5):336-45. Epub 2006 Jul 26.

Estimating relatedness and relationships using microsatellite loci with null alleles.

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Department of Ecology, 310 Lewis Hall, Montana State University, Bozeman, MT 59717, USA.


Relatedness is often estimated from microsatellite genotypes that include null alleles. When null alleles are present, observed genotypes represent one of several possible true genotypes. If null alleles are detected, but analyses do not adjust for their presence (ie, observed genotypes are treated as true genotypes), then estimates of relatedness and relationship can be incorrect. The number of loci available in many wildlife studies is limited, and loci with null alleles are commonly a large proportion of data that cannot be discarded without substantial loss of power. To resolve this problem, we present a new approach for estimating relatedness and relationships from data sets that include null alleles. Once it is recognized that the probability of the observed genotypes is dependent on the probabilities of a limited number of possible true genotypes, the required adjustments are straightforward. The concept can be applied to any existing estimators of relatedness and relationships. We review established maximum likelihood estimators and apply the correction in that setting. In an application of the corrected method to data from striped hyenas, we demonstrate that correcting for the presence of null alleles affect results substantially. Finally, we use simulated data to confirm that this method works better than two common approaches, namely ignoring the presence of null alleles or discarding affected loci.

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