Phase-type distributions in mathematical population genetics: An emerging framework

Asger Hobolth*, Iker Rivas-González, Mogens Bladt, Andreas Futschik

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journal/Conference contribution in journal/Contribution to newspaperReviewResearchpeer-review


A phase-type distribution is the time to absorption in a continuous- or discrete-time Markov chain. Phase-type distributions can be used as a general framework to calculate key properties of the standard coalescent model and many of its extensions. Here, the ‘phases’ in the phase-type distribution correspond to states in the ancestral process. For example, the time to the most recent common ancestor and the total branch length are phase-type distributed. Furthermore, the site frequency spectrum follows a multivariate discrete phase-type distribution and the joint distribution of total branch lengths in the two-locus coalescent-with-recombination model is multivariate phase-type distributed. In general, phase-type distributions provide a powerful mathematical framework for coalescent theory because they are analytically tractable using matrix manipulations. The purpose of this review is to explain the phase-type theory and demonstrate how the theory can be applied to derive basic properties of coalescent models. These properties can then be used to obtain insight into the ancestral process, or they can be applied for statistical inference. In particular, we show the relation between classical first-step analysis of coalescent models and phase-type calculations. We also show how reward transformations in phase-type theory lead to easy calculation of covariances and correlation coefficients between e.g. tree height, tree length, external branch length, and internal branch length. Furthermore, we discuss how these quantities can be used for statistical inference based on estimating equations. Providing an alternative to previous work based on the Laplace transform, we derive likelihoods for small-size coalescent trees based on phase-type theory. Overall, our main aim is to demonstrate that phase-type distributions provide a convenient general set of tools to understand aspects of coalescent models that are otherwise difficult to derive. Throughout the review, we emphasize the versatility of the phase-type framework, which is also illustrated by our accompanying R-code. All our analyses and figures can be reproduced from code available on GitHub.

Original languageEnglish
JournalTheoretical Population Biology
Pages (from-to)14-32
Number of pages19
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2024


  • Coalescent
  • Laplace transform
  • Likelihood inference
  • Phase-type theory
  • Population genetics
  • Reward transformation


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