The evolution of genetic architectures underlying quantitative traits

Etienne Rajon, Joshua B. Plotkin


In the classic view introduced by R. A. Fisher, a quantitative trait is encoded by many loci with small, additive effects. Recent advances in quantitative trait loci mapping have begun to elucidate the genetic architectures underlying vast numbers of phenotypes across diverse taxa, producing observations that sometimes contrast with Fisher's blueprint. Despite these considerable empirical efforts to map the genetic determinants of traits, it remains poorly understood how the genetic architecture of a trait should evolve, or how it depends on the selection pressures on the trait. Here, we develop a simple, population-genetic model for the evolution of genetic architectures. Our model predicts that traits under moderate selection should be encoded by many loci with highly variable effects, whereas traits under either weak or strong selection should be encoded by relatively few loci. We compare these theoretical predictions with qualitative trends in the genetics of human traits, and with systematic data on the genetics of gene expression levels in yeast. Our analysis provides an evolutionary explanation for broad empirical patterns in the genetic basis for traits, and it introduces a single framework that unifies the diversity of observed genetic architectures, ranging from Mendelian to Fisherian.

  • Received June 14, 2013.
  • Accepted August 1, 2013.
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