It is well known that the pattern of linkage disequilibrium varies between human populations, with remarkable geographical stratification. Indirect association studies routinely exploit linkage disequilibrium around genes, particularly in isolated populations where it is assumed to be higher. Here, we explore both the amount and the decay of linkage disequilibrium with physical distance along 211 gene regions, most of them related to complex diseases, across 39 HGDP-CEPH population samples, focusing particularly on the populations defined as isolates. Within each gene region and population we use r2 between all possible single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) pairs as a measure of linkage disequilibrium and focus on the proportion of SNP pairs with r2 greater than 0.8.
Although the average r2 was found to be significantly different both between and within continental regions, a much higher proportion of r2 variance could be attributed to differences between continental regions (2.8% vs. 0.5%, respectively). Similarly, while the proportion of SNP pairs with r2 > 0.8 was significantly different across continents for all distance classes, it was generally much more homogenous within continents, except in the case of Africa and the Americas. The only isolated populations with consistently higher LD in all distance classes with respect to their continent are the Kalash (Central South Asia) and the Surui (America). Moreover, isolated populations showed only slightly higher proportions of SNP pairs with r2 > 0.8 per gene region than non-isolated populations in the same continent. Thus, the number of SNPs in isolated populations that need to be genotyped may be only slightly less than in non-isolates.
The "isolated population" label by itself does not guarantee a greater genotyping efficiency in association studies, and properties other than increased linkage disequilibrium may make these populations interesting in genetic epidemiology.