Suggested molecular mechanisms for the generation of new tandem repeats of simple sequences indicate that the microsatellite loci evolve via some form of forward-backward mutation. We provide a mathematical basis for suggesting a measure of genetic distance between populations based on microsatellite variation. Our results indicate that such a genetic distance measure can remain proportional to the divergence time of populations even when the forward-backward mutations produce variable and/or directionally biased alleles size changes. If the population size and the rate of mutation remain constant, then the measure will be proportional to the time of divergence of populations. This genetic distance is expressed in terms of a ratio of components of variance of allele sizes, based on expressions developed for studying population dynamics of quantitative traits. Application of this measure to data on 18 microsatellite loci in nine human populations leads to evolutionary trees consistent with the known ethnohistory of the populations.

  • Received October 25, 1995.
  • Accepted January 27, 1996.