Article series: Applications of next-generation sequencing

Sequencing pools of individuals — mining genome-wide polymorphism data without big funding

Journal name:
Nature Reviews Genetics
Year published:
Published online


The analysis of polymorphism data is becoming increasingly important as a complementary tool to classical genetic analyses. Nevertheless, despite plunging sequencing costs, genomic sequencing of individuals at the population scale is still restricted to a few model species. Whole-genome sequencing of pools of individuals (Pool-seq) provides a cost-effective alternative to sequencing individuals separately. With the availability of custom-tailored software tools, Pool-seq is being increasingly used for population genomic research on both model and non-model organisms. In this Review, we not only demonstrate the breadth of questions that are being addressed by Pool-seq but also discuss its limitations and provide guidelines for users.

At a glance


  1. Cost-effectiveness of Pool-seq.
    Figure 1: Cost-effectiveness of Pool-seq.

    The accuracy of allele frequency estimates is compared for whole-genome sequencing of pools of individuals (Pool-seq) and whole-genome sequencing of individuals using the ratio of the standard deviation (SD) of the estimated allele frequency with both methods. The same number of reads is used for both sequencing strategies. A value smaller than one indicates that Pool-seq is more accurate than sequencing of individuals. a | The influence of the pool size is shown. A larger pool size results in higher accuracy of Pool-seq, but Pool-seq still produces more accurate allele frequency estimates even for pool sizes of 50 individuals in most comparisons. Only when the number of sequenced individuals approaches the pool size does sequencing of individuals become the superior strategy. b | Influence of coverage and variation in representation of individuals in a pool is shown. With a lower coverage per individual, the advantage of Pool-seq decreases. It should be noted that with a decreasing coverage per individual, the two approaches produce very similar types of data; that is, sequencing of individuals tends to show the same limitations as Pool-seq, such as for estimating linkage disequilibrium and for distinguishing sequencing errors from low-frequency polymorphisms. Variation in the representation of individuals in the DNA pool reduces the accuracy of Pool-seq only slightly (0% (that is, all individuals are uniformly represented; orange line) and 30% (light blue line)). The graphs were generated with the PIFs software12, ignoring sequencing errors.

  2. Comparison of sequencing strategies.
    Figure 2: Comparison of sequencing strategies.

    Three different sequencing approaches — whole-genome sequencing (part a), exome sequencing (part b) and restriction-site-associated DNA sequencing (RAD-seq; part c) — are compared, and sequencing of individuals (left panel) is contrasted with sequencing of pools of individuals (right panel). Reads are coloured to reflect the individual from which they originate. In exome sequencing, sequencing libraries are enriched for exonic sequences (part b). RAD-seq only determines the sequence next to restriction sites, which results in stacked sequence reads (part c). Both exome sequencing and RAD-seq direct the sequencing efforts to targeted regions. This reduction in genome coverage allows a higher read count at a given genomic position and thus a more accurate allele frequency estimate at the covered genomic regions than whole-genome sequencing.

  3. Pool-seq applications.
    Figure 3: Pool-seq applications.

    Whole-genome sequencing of pools of individuals (Pool-seq) is a versatile technology that may be used for a wide range of applications. a | Pool genome-wide association study (Pool-GWAS) was used to examine female abdominal pigmentation in Drosophila melanogaster. Contrasting the allele frequencies in pools of light and dark females identified candidate single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) with an exceptionally high mapping resolution (<210 bp) near the pigmentation genes tan and bric-à-brac 1 (Ref. 54). b | A comparison of neutral SNPs (left panel) and SNPs associated with salinity (right panel) in herring is shown. Although neutral SNPs show no population differentiation, evolutionarily selected SNPs clearly distinguish high-salinity (Atlantic) and low-salinity (Baltic Sea) populations72. c | The Manhattan plot shows the significance of SNPs in the chicken genome in a test for loci selected during domestication. Domesticated species are compared to a wild population. One domestication-specific adaptation is in the thyroid-stimulating hormone receptor (TSHR) gene59. d | Polymorphism on chromosome 3R of Drosophila mauritiana and D. melanogaster is shown. The reduced recombination rate towards the centromere in D. melanogaster is reflected by the lower polymorphism level, whereas polymorphism level remains high in D. mauritiana, reflecting the differences in the recombination landscape between the two species83. e | The time series shows the dynamics of three Burkholderia cenocepacia morphs: ruffled (R), studded (S) and wrinkly (W). The upper panel displays the relative frequencies of the morphs, including morph switches, as inferred from allele frequency analyses using Pool-seq. “M” indicates mutations acquired during the time course. The lower panel schematically shows the morph switches during the experiment96. f | Clonal evolution in human leukaemia before and after chemotherapy is shown. An initial leukaemia cell (black) expands by cell division to form a leukaemic cell population (grey area). During this expansion, additional mutations are acquired in minor subclones (orange and pink areas). Treatment with chemotherapy reduced the leukaemic cell population, and only one of the minor subclones survived chemotherapy treatment to expand during post-treatment relapse. Across different leukaemia samples, such an approach was able to distinguish whether the mutation that is possibly causing relapse was already present before chemotherapy (this example) or emerged after chemotherapy (not shown)100. FDR, false discovery rate. Figure reproduced with permission from: a, Ref. 54, © 2013 Bastide et al.; b, Ref. 72, National Academy of Sciences; c, Ref. 59, Nature Publishing Group; d, Ref. 83, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press; e, Ref. 96, National Academy of Sciences; f, Ref. 100, Nature Publishing Group.


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Author information


  1. Institut für Populationsgenetik, Vetmeduni Vienna, Veterinärplatz 1, 1210 Vienna, Austria.

    • Christian Schlötterer,
    • Raymond Tobler,
    • Robert Kofler &
    • Viola Nolte
  2. Vienna Graduate School of Population Genetics.

    • Raymond Tobler

Competing interests statement

The authors declare no competing interests.

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Author details

  • Christian Schlötterer

    Christian Schlötterer received his Ph.D. in Genetics at the Ludwig Maximilian University Munich, Germany. Following postdoctoral work at the Ludwig Maximilian University Munich and the University of Chicago, Illinois, USA, he joined the faculty of the Vetmeduni Vienna, Austria, where he heads the Institute of Population Genetics. The main focus of his laboratory is on the genetic basis of adaptation to local environments. Christian Schlötterer's homepage.

  • Raymond Tobler

    Ray Tobler is currently finishing his Ph.D. at the Vetmeduni Vienna, Austria. He is interested in how populations adapt to stressful environments. By combining experimental evolution and next-generation sequencing, he studies adaptive genomic changes in Drosophila melanogaster populations exposed to novel thermal environments.

  • Robert Kofler

    Robert Kofler is a senior bioinformatics postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Population Genetics, Vetmeduni Vienna, Austria. He is interested in the evolutionary dynamics of transposable elements and the trajectories of beneficial alleles in experimentally evolving populations. He has pioneered the data analysis of whole-genome sequencing of pools of individuals (Pool-seq) and developed several software solutions for such data.

  • Viola Nolte

    Viola Nolte studied Biology at the Leibniz Universität Hannover, Germany. She has a broad range of research interests, ranging from molecular evolution to experimental population genetics.

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