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J Evol Biol. 2004 Sep;17(5):1106-10.

Genetic assimilation can occur in the absence of selection for the assimilating phenotype, suggesting a role for the canalization heuristic.

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Department of Biological Sciences, Stanford, CA, USA.


Genetic assimilation occurs when an acquired trait loses dependency on its environmental trigger and becomes an inherited trait. According to the standard quantitative genetic model for genetic assimilation, the trait is determined by the contributions of multiple genes. Trait expression occurs at a lower threshold with the trigger. Selection for the trait in the presence of the trigger increases the frequency of the trait-determining alleles. Eventually these alleles become frequent enough to breach the higher threshold for expression in the absence of the trigger. This loss of dependence on the trigger signifies genetic assimilation. Here I show that genetic assimilation can occur in the absence of selection for the trait in an evolutionary simulation of a gene network model. This contradicts the prediction of the standard quantitative genetic model, but is consistent with an explanation in terms of the canalization heuristic.

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