Bottleneck and selection in the germline and maternal age influence transmission of mitochondrial DNA in human pedigrees


Heteroplasmy—the presence of multiple mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) haplotypes in an individual —can lead to numerous mitochondrial diseases. The presentation of such diseases depends on the frequency of the heteroplasmic variant in tissues, which in turn depends on the dynamics of mtDNA transmissions during germline and somatic development. Thus, understanding and predicting these dynamics between generations and within individuals is medically relevant. Here we study patterns of heteroplasmy in two tissues from each of 345 humans in 96 multi- generational families, each with at least two siblings. This experimental design has allowed us to estimate the timing of mtDNA mutations, drift, and selection with unprecedented precision. Our results are remarkably concordant between two complementary population-genetic approaches. We find evidence for a severe germline bottleneck (7–10 mtDNA segregating units) that occurs independently in different oocyte lineages from the same mother, while somatic bottlenecks are less severe. We demonstrate that divergence between mother and offspring increases with the mother’s age at childbirth, likely due to continued drift of heteroplasmy frequencies in oocytes under meiotic arrest. We show that this period is also accompanied by mutation accumulation leading to more de novo mutations in children born to older mothers. We show that heteroplasmic variants at intermediate frequencies can segregate for many generations in the human population, despite the strong germline bottleneck. We show that selection acts during germline development to keep the frequency of putatively deleterious variants from rising. Our findings have important applications for clinical genetics and genetic counseling.

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences