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PLoS One. 2012;7(9):e45170. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0045170. Epub 2012 Sep 12.

Sampling for microsatellite-based population genetic studies: 25 to 30 individuals per population is enough to accurately estimate allele frequencies.

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School of Biological Sciences, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand.


One of the most common questions asked before starting a new population genetic study using microsatellite allele frequencies is "how many individuals do I need to sample from each population?" This question has previously been answered by addressing how many individuals are needed to detect all of the alleles present in a population (i.e. rarefaction based analyses). However, we argue that obtaining accurate allele frequencies and accurate estimates of diversity are much more important than detecting all of the alleles, given that very rare alleles (i.e. new mutations) are not very informative for assessing genetic diversity within a population or genetic structure among populations. Here we present a comparison of allele frequencies, expected heterozygosities and genetic distances between real and simulated populations by randomly subsampling 5-100 individuals from four empirical microsatellite genotype datasets (Formica lugubris, Sciurus vulgaris, Thalassarche melanophris, and Himantopus novaezelandia) to create 100 replicate datasets at each sample size. Despite differences in taxon (two birds, one mammal, one insect), population size, number of loci and polymorphism across loci, the degree of differences between simulated and empirical dataset allele frequencies, expected heterozygosities and pairwise F(ST) values were almost identical among the four datasets at each sample size. Variability in allele frequency and expected heterozygosity among replicates decreased with increasing sample size, but these decreases were minimal above sample sizes of 25 to 30. Therefore, there appears to be little benefit in sampling more than 25 to 30 individuals per population for population genetic studies based on microsatellite allele frequencies.

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