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Mol Ecol. 2012 Jun;21(12):2839-46. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-294X.2012.05578.x. Epub 2012 May 11.

The trouble with isolation by distance.

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Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics, University of Amsterdam, P.O. Box 94248, 1090GE Amsterdam, The Netherlands.


The genetic population structure of many species is characterised by a pattern of isolation by distance (IBD): due to limited dispersal, individuals that are geographically close tend to be genetically more similar than individuals that are far apart. Despite the ubiquity of IBD in nature, many commonly used statistical tests are based on a null model that is completely non-spatial, the Island model. Here, I argue that patterns of spatial autocorrelation deriving from IBD present a problem for such tests as it can severely bias their outcome. I use simulated data to illustrate this problem for two widely used types of tests: tests of hierarchical population structure and the detection of loci under selection. My results show that for both types of tests the presence of IBD can indeed lead to a large number of false positives. I therefore argue that all analyses in a study should take the spatial dependence in the data into account, unless it can be shown that there is no spatial autocorrelation in the allele frequency distribution that is under investigation. Thus, it is urgent to develop additional statistical approaches that are based on a spatially explicit null model instead of the non-spatial Island model.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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