Transmission bottleneck size estimation from pathogen deep-sequencing data, with an application to human influenza A virus

Ashley Sobel Leonard, Daniel B. Weissman, Benjamin Greenbaum, Elodie Ghedin, Katia Koelle

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The bottleneck governing infectious disease transmission describes the size of the pathogen population transferred from the donor to the recipient host. Accurate quantification of the bottleneck size is particularly important for rapidly evolving pathogens such as influenza virus, as narrow bottlenecks reduce the amount of transferred viral genetic diversity and, thus, may decrease the rate of viral adaptation. Previous studies have estimated bottleneck sizes governing viral transmission by using statistical analyses of variants identified in pathogen sequencing data. These analyses, however, did not account for variant calling thresholds and stochastic viral replication dynamics within recipient hosts. Because these factors can skew bottleneck size estimates, we introduce a new method for inferring bottleneck sizes that accounts for these factors. Through the use of a simulated data set, we first show that our method, based on beta-binomial sampling, accurately recovers transmission bottleneck sizes, whereas other methods fail to do so. We then apply our method to a data set of influenza A virus (IAV) infections for which viral deepsequencing data from transmission pairs are available. We find that the IAV transmission bottleneck size estimates in this study are highly variable across transmission pairs, while the mean bottleneck size of 196 virions is consistent with a previous estimate for this data set. Furthermore, regression analysis shows a positive association between estimated bottleneck size and donor infection severity, as measured by temperature. These results support findings from experimental transmission studies showing that bottleneck sizes across transmission events can be variable and influenced in part by epidemiological factors.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere00171-17
JournalJournal of virology
Issue number14
StatePublished - Jul 1 2017


  • Bottleneck
  • Influenza A virus
  • Next-generation sequencing

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Microbiology
  • Immunology
  • Insect Science
  • Virology


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