Soft shoulders ahead: Spurious signatures of soft and partial selective sweeps result from linked hard sweeps

Daniel R. Schrider, Fábio K. Mendes, Matthew W. Hahn

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

45 Scopus citations


Characterizing the nature of the adaptive process at the genetic level is a central goal for population genetics. In particular, we know little about the sources of adaptive substitution or about the number of adaptive variants currently segregating in nature. Historically, population geneticists have focused attention on the hard-sweep model of adaptation in which a de novo beneficial mutation arises and rapidly fixes in a population. Recently more attention has been given to soft-sweep models, in which alleles that were previously neutral, or nearly so, drift until such a time as the environment shifts and their selection coefficient changes to become beneficial. It remains an active and difficult problem, however, to tease apart the telltale signatures of hard vs. soft sweeps in genomic polymorphism data. Through extensive simulations of hard- and soft-sweep models, here we show that indeed the two might not be separable through the use of simple summary statistics. In particular, it seems that recombination in regions linked to, but distant from, sites of hard sweeps can create patterns of polymorphism that closely mirror what is expected to be found near soft sweeps. We find that a very similar situation arises when using haplotype-based statistics that are aimed at detecting partial or ongoing selective sweeps, such that it is difficult to distinguish the shoulder of a hard sweep from the center of a partial sweep.While knowing the location of the selected site mitigates this problem slightly, we show that stochasticity in signatures of natural selection will frequently cause the signal to reach its zenith far from this site and that this effect is more severe for soft sweeps; thus inferences of the target as well as the mode of positive selection may be inaccurate. In addition, both the time since a sweep ends and biologically realistic levels of allelic gene conversion lead to errors in the classification and identification of selective sweeps. This general problem of “soft shoulders” underscores the difficulty in differentiating soft and partial sweeps from hard-sweep scenarios in molecular population genomics data. The soft-shoulder effect also implies that the more common hard sweeps have been in recent evolutionary history, the more prevalent spurious signatures of soft or partial sweeps may appear in some genome-wide scans.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)267-284
Number of pages18
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2015

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Genetics


  • Natural selection
  • Population genetics
  • Selective sweeps


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