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J Biomed Biotechnol. 2010;2010:478732. doi: 10.1155/2010/478732. Epub 2010 May 10.

Maternal-zygotic epistasis and the evolution of genetic diseases.

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Department of Biology & Biochemistry, University of Bath, Bath BA27AY, UK.


Many birth defects and genetic diseases are expressed in individuals that do not carry the disease causing alleles. Genetic diseases observed in offspring can be caused by gene expression in mothers and by interactions between gene expression in mothers and offspring. It is not clear whether the underlying pattern of gene expression (maternal versus offspring) affects the incidence of genetic disease. Here we develop a 2-locus population genetic model with epistatic interactions between a maternal gene and a zygotic gene to address this question. We show that maternal effect genes that affect disease susceptibility in offspring persist longer and at higher frequencies in a population than offspring genes with the same effects. We find that specific forms of maternal-zygotic epistasis can maintain disease causing alleles at high frequencies over a range of plausible values. Our findings suggest that the strength and form of epistasis and the underlying pattern of gene expression may greatly influence the prevalence of human genetic diseases.

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