Statnote 36: Do the data fit the Poisson distribution

Anthony Hilton, Richard Armstrong

Research output: Contribution to specialist publication or newspaperArticle


In previous Statnotes, many of the statistical tests described rely on the assumption that the data are a random sample from a normal or Gaussian distribution. These include most of the tests in common usage such as the ‘t’ test ), the various types of analysis of variance (ANOVA), and Pearson’s correlation coefficient (‘r’) . In microbiology research, however, not all variables can be assumed to follow a normal distribution. Yeast populations, for example, are a notable feature of freshwater habitats, representatives of over 100 genera having been recorded . Most common are the ‘red yeasts’ such as Rhodotorula, Rhodosporidium, and Sporobolomyces and ‘black yeasts’ such as Aurobasidium pelculans, together with species of Candida. Despite the abundance of genera and species, the overall density of an individual species in freshwater is likely to be low and hence, samples taken from such a population will contain very low numbers of cells. A rare organism living in an aquatic environment may be distributed more or less at random in a volume of water and therefore, samples taken from such an environment may result in counts which are more likely to be distributed according to the Poisson than the normal distribution. The Poisson distribution was named after the French mathematician Siméon Poisson (1781-1840) and has many applications in biology, especially in describing rare or randomly distributed events, e.g., the number of mutations in a given sequence of DNA after exposure to a fixed amount of radiation or the number of cells infected by a virus given a fixed level of exposure. This Statnote describes how to fit the Poisson distribution to counts of yeast cells in samples taken from a freshwater lake.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages3
Specialist publicationMicrobiologist
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2014


  • Poisson distribution
  • Random distribution
  • Ch-square goodness of fit test
  • yeast cells


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