The Pith: The human X chromosome is subject to more pressure from natural selection, resulting in less genetic diversity. But, the differences in diversity of X chromosomes across human populations seem to be more a function of population history than differences in the power of natural selection across those populations.
In the past few years there has been a finding that the human X chromosome exhibits less genetic diversity than the non-sex regions of the genome, the autosome. Why? On the face of it this might seem inexplicable, but a few basic structural factors derived from the architecture of the human genome present themselves.
First, in males the X chromosome is hemizygous, rendering it more exposed to selection. This is rather straightforward once you move beyond the jargon. Human males have only one copy of genes which express on the X chromosome, because they have only one X chromosome. In contrast, females have two X chromosomes. This is the reason why sex linked traits in humans are disproportionately male. For genes on the X chromosome women can be carriers of many diseases because they have two copies of a gene, and one copy may be functional. In contrast, a male has only a functional or nonfunctional version of the gene, because he has one copy on the X chromosome. This is different from the case on the autosome, where both males and females have two copies of every gene.
This structural divergence matters for the selective dynamics operative upon the X chromosome vs. the autosome. On the autosome recessive traits pay far less of a cost in terms of fitness than they do on the X chromosome, because in the case of the latter they’re much more often exposed to natural selection via males. In the rest of the genome recessive traits only pay the cost of their shortcomings when they’re present as two copies in an individual, homozygotes. A simple quasi-formal example illustrates the process.
A month ago I pointed to a short communication in Nature Genetics which highlighted differences in the patterns of variation between the X chromosome and the autosome. I thought it would be of interest to revisit this, because it’s a relatively short piece with precise and crisp results which we can ruminate upon.
Sometimes there is a disjunction between how evolutionary biologists and molecular biologists use terms like “gene.” The issue is explored in depth in Andrew Brown’s The Darwin Wars. Brown observes that one of the problems with Richard Dawkins’ style of exposition is that it did not translate well to the American context. He spoke of genes as units of analysis, from which logical inferences could be made. This was the classical Oxford style of evolutionary biology which Ernst Mayr objected to. In contrast American biologists were used to thinking of genes in more concrete biophysical terms, and tended to miss the theoretical context which Dawkins was alluding to in his arguments. In Dawkins’ defense, it must be remembered that the gene does have its origins as an abstract entity whose biophysical substrate, DNA, was not known for decades. In my post Simple rules for inclusive fitness I outlined a paper which is very much in keeping with the analytic tradition. Start with an abstract model and allow the chain of inferences to be made, and see where it takes you.