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In cases of inherited pathogenic mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) mutations, a mother and her offspring generally have large and seemingly random differences in the amount of mutated mtDNA that they carry. Comparisons of measured mtDNA mutation level variance values have become an important issue in determining the mechanisms that cause these large random shifts in mutation level. These variance measurements have been made with samples of quite modest size, which should be a source of concern because higher-order statistics, such as variance, are poorly estimated from small sample sizes. We have developed an analysis of the standard error of variance from a sample of size n, and we have defined error bars for variance measurements based on this standard error. We calculate variance error bars for several published sets of measurements of mtDNA mutation level variance and show how the addition of the error bars alters the interpretation of these experimental results. We compare variance measurements from human clinical data and from mouse models and show that the mutation level variance is clearly higher in the human data than it is in the mouse models at both the primary oocyte and offspring stages of inheritance. We discuss how the standard error of variance can be used in the design of experiments measuring mtDNA mutation level variance. Our results show that variance measurements based on fewer than 20 measurements are generally unreliable and ideally more than 50 measurements are required to reliably compare variances with less than a 2-fold difference.
(c) 2010 The American Society of Human Genetics. Published by Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.