On the 30th Anniversary of DNA Sequencing in Population Genetics

30 years ago today, the “struggle to measure genetic variation” in natural populations was finally won. In a paper entitled “Nucleotide polymorphism at the alcohol dehydrogenase locus of Drosophila melanogaster” (published on 4 Aug 1983), Martin Kreitman reported the first effort to use DNA sequencing to study genetic variation at the ultimate level of resolution possible. Kreitman (1983) was instantly recognized as a major advance and became a textbook example in population genetics by the end of the 1980s. John Gillespie refers to this paper as “a milestone in evolutionary genetics“. Jeff Powell in his brief history of molecular population genetics goes so far as to say “It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of this paper”.

Arguably, the importance of Kreitman (1983) is greater now than ever, in that it provides both the technical and conceptual foundations for the modern gold rush in population genomics, including important global initiatives such as the 1000 Genomes Project. However, I suspect this paper is less well know to the increasing number of researchers who have come to studying molecular variation from routes other than through a training in population genetics. For those not familiar with this landmark paper, it is worth taking the time to read it or Nathan Pearson‘s excellent summary over on Genomena.

As with other landmark scientific efforts, I am intrigued by how such projects and papers come together. Powell’s “brief history” describes how Kreitman arrived at using DNA to study variation in Adh, including some direct quotes from Kreitman (p. 145). However, this account leaves out an interesting story about the publication of this paper that I had heard bits and pieces of over time. Hard as it may be to imagine in today’s post-genomic sequence-everything world, using DNA sequencing to study genetic variation in natural populations was not immediately recognized as being of fundamental importance, at least by the editors of Nature where it was ultimately published.

To better understand the events of the publication of this work, I recently asked Richard Lewontin, Kreitman’s PhD supervisor, to provide his recollections on this project and the paper. Here is what he had to say by email (12 July 2013):

Dear Casey Bergman

I am delighted that you are commemorating Marty’s 1983 paper that changed the whole face of experimental population genetics. The story of the paper is as follows.

It was always the policy in our lab group that graduate students invented their own theses. My view was (and still is) that someone who cannot come up with an idea for a research program and a plan for carrying it out should not be a graduate student. Marty is a wonderful example of what a graduate student can do without being told what to do by his or her professor. Marty came to us from a zoology background and one day not very long after he became a member of the group he came to me and asked how I would feel about his investigating the genetic variation in Drosophila populations by looking at DNA sequence variation rather than the usual molecular method of looking at proteins which then occupied our lab. My sole contribution to Marty’s proposal was to say “It sounds like a great idea.”  I had never thought of the idea before but it became immediately obvious to me that it was a marvelous idea.  So Marty went over on his own initiative, to Wally Gilbert’s lab and learned all the methodology from George Church who was then in the Gilbert lab.

After Marty’s work was finished and he was to get his degree, he wrote a paper based on his thesis and, with my encouragement, sent the paper to Nature. He offered to make me a co-author, but I refused on long-standing principle. Since the idea and the work were entirely his, he was the sole author, a policy that was general in our group. I had no doubt that it was the most important work done in experimental population genetics  in many years and Nature was an obvious choice for this pathbreaking work.

The paper was soon returned by the Editor saying that they were not interested because they already had so many papers that gave the DNA sequence of various genes that they really did not want yet another one! Obviously they missed the point. My immediate reaction was to have Marty send the paper to a leading influential British Drosophila geneticist who would obviously understand its importance, asking him to retransmit the paper to Nature with his recommendation. He did so and the Editor of Nature then accepted it for publication. The rest is history.

Our own lab very quickly converted from protein electrophoresis to DNA sequencing, and I spent a lot of time using and updating the computer interface with the gel reading process, starting from  Marty’s original programs for reading gels and outputting sequences. We never went back to protein electrophoresis. While protein gel electrophoresis certainly revolutionized population genetics, Marty’s introduction of DNA sequencing as the method for evolutionary genetic investigation of population genetic issues was a much more powerful one and made possible the testing of a  variety of evolutionary questions for which protein gel electrophoresis was inadequate. Marty deserves to be considered as one of the major developers of evolutionary and population genetics studies.

Yours ,

Dick Lewontin

Some may argue that Kreitman (1983) did not reveal all forms of genetic variation at the molecular level (e.g. large-scale structural variants) and therefore does not truly represent the “end” of the struggle to measure variation. What is clear, however, is that Kreitman (1983) does indeed represent the beginning of the “struggle to interpret genetic variation” at the fundamental genetic level, a struggle that may ultimately take longer then measuring variation itself. According to Maynard Olson interpreting (human) genomic variation will be a multi-generational effort “like building the European cathedrals“. 30 years in, Olson’s assessment is proving to be remarkably accurate. Here’s to Kreitman (1983) for laying the first stone!

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