This analysis was made in preparation of a contribution to a Swedish book on evolutionary creation (theistic evolution) vs anti-evolutionary creation (”creationism”). It was inspired a similar analysis made by Steve Schaffner in 2017 which was replicated by EvoGrad in 2019.
When evaluating the genetic evidence for or against common descent, genetic similarities such as endogenous retroviruses (ERVs). Howeber, genetic differences between organisms may also provide us with data to assess the theory of common descent. Genetic differences can arise through different means, one of them being point mutations when one base is substituted for another. There are four bases: A, C, G and T, meaning that twelve substitutions are possible: A>C, A>G, A>T, C>A, C>T, C>G, etc. Unfortunately, it is not always possible to say which base has changed into which. For example, if we have the sequences, one with A and one with T, we don’t know if A has changed into T or T has changed into A unless we have the sequence of the common ancestor. In addition, DNA is double stranded so that A is always paired with T and G is always paired with C, so we cannot say from only present data which base was mutated. So instead of grouping the mutations into twelve classes, we can group them in four identifiable classes. Mutations within the first class are called transitions and the other three classes are called transversions.
- A<>G, C<>T (transitions)
- A<>C, G<>T (transversions)
- C<>G (transversions)
- A<>T (transversions)
Transitions are more frequent than transversions. This is due to a similar chemical structure between A and G (they are called purines), and likewise C and T are chemically similar (called pyrimidines). The consequence is that when a point mutation occurs during DNA replication, a purine tends to be substituted by a purine and a pyrimidine tends to be substituted by a pyrimidine (figure 1). In other words, class 1 (transitions) will be more common than the other classes (transversions). If a genetic difference between two individuals (or species) is due to mutations, we expect to find a pattern of higher A<>G and C<>T diversity compared to other kinds.
1. De novo mutations
One possible way to investigate mutation frequency patterns is by sequencing children and parents and identify de novo mutations (DNMs). On average, around 60 point mutations arise every generation (the human mutation rate). This kind of data is publically available from several studies, including from Smith et al (Plos Genetics 2018) who performed a meta-study including more than 130,000 autosomal DNMs. We can extract the mutation classes from the data and plot the distribution of DNMs with R/tidyverse [scripts: , ]. The results are shown in figure 2: transitions (class 1) are more common than transversions (class 2-4) – just as we expect when point mutations act.
2. Human genetic diversity
An alternative method to study the mutation frequency spectrum is to look at the total genetic diversity in the human population. This has been done in the 1000 Genomes Project (Nature 2015) and the data is publically avilable. We can extract the allele classes [scripts: ]. Doing that, we find that the distribution is congruent with the DNM data: A<>G and C<>T diversity (transitions) are much more common than transversions. In figure 3, the left bar in each class represents DNM data and the middle bar represents 1000 genome data. The close similarity between the two classes is a strong suggestion that the same mechanism is responsible, ie mutations.
3. Great ape diversity
Finally, we can compare the DNA diversity between different species, eg the great apes. We can do this by collecting and sequencing DNA from different individuals of a species and select the sites that have a fixed allele (all individuals are identical) but that are different to the other species. The genetic differences will be much bigger than within one species, but the same basic principle still applies: If the differences are due to point mutations we expect a characteristic pattern with respect to the kind of differences between the species. On the other hand, if the differences are not due to point mutations there is no reason to expect a specific pattern.
We can analyze the mutation frequency spectrum using publically available data. Prado-Martinez (Nature 2013) collected and sequenced DNA from 79 great apes representing 5 species (Gorilla, Pan troglodytes, Pan paniscus, Pongo abelii, Pongo pygmaeus) and 9 humans. They identified the sites that are different from the human reference genome. In some cases, individuals within a species will be similar (allele is fixed), in other cases there will be genetic variation within a species (allele is polymorphic). From the published data, we can separate the genetic differences into the usualfour classes and analyze their frequency. Once again, A<>G and C<>T diversity turns out to be much higher than the other types, which is expected if it is a result of transitions.
If we compare the genetic diversity between chimpanzees and humans with human de novo mutations and total human genetic diversity, the patterns are strikingly similar. This is true whether we include only fixed alleles (fig. 3) or both fixed and polymorphic alleles (fig. 4).
The three different data sets – human de novo mutations, total human genetic variation, and the genetic diversity between humans and chimpanzees, show highly similar mutation frequency spectra. This is a strong indication that the genetic variation has arisen by similar means. If the interspecies diversity instead were a result of de novo creation, there would be no reason to expect this congruence between the data.
Finally, we can compare the mutation frequency spectra of the other great apes to the human reference genome. Figure 5 shows only fixed sites and figure 6 shows both fixed and polymorphic sites. The spectra match nicely, once again indicating that a similar mechanism is responsible for the genetic differences between the species.
Figures 5 and 6 also show another interesting feature that was pointed out by EvoGrad: There is a slight difference between the species: the human mutation spectrum is most similar the chimpanzee one, then to bonobo, then to gorilla and orangutan. There is a natural explanation for this: Different species, and even different populations within the same species, often have slightly different mutation frequency spectra. Harris and Pritchard (2017) report that almost every great ape species and human continental group has its own distinctive mutation spectrum. Figures 5 and 6 indicates that closely related species have a more similar spectrum, while more divergent species have a more dissimilar spectrum. Harris and Pritchard (2017) make a model (fig. 5B) of the evolution of the mutation frequency spectrum based on the Prado-Martinez et al. (2013) data, adding to the explanatory power of the common descent hypothesis.
We have compared three categories of genetic variation: 1) Human de novo mutations, i.e. the genetic diversity that arises in every new generation; 2) the naturally occurring variation in the human genome; and 3) the types of single nucleotide variations that separate the human and chimpanzee genome. The mutation frequency spectra that describe these three categories are highly similar, indicating that a common mechanism is responsible in all three cases. Since we know that human de novo genetic variation is the result of point mutations, the most reasonable conclusion is that point mutations are also responsible for the genetic differences between the great ape species.
The mutation frequency spectrum can be used to differentiate between evolutionary creation/theistic evolution and anti-evolutionary creation. The former theory involves common descent, while the second denies common descent of humans and the great apes. While evolutionary creation gives a natural explanation for the observed data – the interspecies difference is a consequence of the same mechanisms that has genereted the intraspecies variation – anti-evolutionary creation gives us no reason to expect the observed data. Evolutionary creation thus has a higher explanatory power than the alternative hypothesis and fits the data more nicely.
Harris, Kelley, and Jonathan K. Pritchard. 2017. “Rapid Evolution of the Human Mutation Spectrum.” eLife 6 (April). Link.
Prado-Martinez, Javier, Peter H. Sudmant, Jeffrey M. Kidd, Heng Li, Joanna L. Kelley, Belen Lorente-Galdos, Krishna R. Veeramah, et al. 2013. “Great Ape Genetic Diversity and Population History.” Nature 499 (7459): 471–75. Link, Data.
Smith, Thomas C. A., Peter F. Arndt, and Adam Eyre-Walker. 2018. “Large Scale Variation in the Rate of Germ-Line de Novo Mutation, Base Composition, Divergence and Diversity in Humans.” PLoS Genetics 14 (3): e1007254. Link, Data.
1000 Genomes Project Consortium, Adam Auton, Lisa D. Brooks, Richard M. Durbin, Erik P. Garrison, Hyun Min Kang, Jan O. Korbel, et al. 2015. “A Global Reference for Human Genetic Variation.” Nature 526 (7571): 68–74. Link, Data.