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Large-scale screens for loss-of-function mutants have played a significant role in recent advances in developmental biology and other fields. In such mutant screens, it is desirable to estimate the degree of "saturation" of the screen (i.e., what fraction of the possible target genes has been identified). We applied Bayesian and maximum-likelihood methods for estimating the number of loci remaining undetected in large-scale screens and produced credibility intervals to assess the uncertainty of these estimates. Since different loci may mutate to alleles with detectable phenotypes at different rates, we also incorporated variation in the degree of mutability among genes, using either gamma-distributed mutation rates or multiple discrete mutation rate classes. We examined eight published data sets from large-scale mutant screens and found that credibility intervals are much broader than implied by previous assumptions about the degree of saturation of screens. The likelihood methods presented here are a significantly better fit to data from published experiments than estimates based on the Poisson distribution, which implicitly assumes a single mutation rate for all loci. The results are reasonably robust to different models of variation in the mutability of genes. We tested our methods against mutant allele data from a region of the Drosophila melanogaster genome for which there is an independent genomics-based estimate of the number of undetected loci and found that the number of such loci falls within the predicted credibility interval for our models. The methods we have developed may also be useful for estimating the degree of saturation in other types of genetic screens in addition to classical screens for simple loss-of-function mutants, including genetic modifier screens and screens for protein-protein interactions using the yeast two-hybrid method.

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