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Nat Rev Genet. 2011 Oct 18;12(11):767-80. doi: 10.1038/nrg3015.

Molecular spandrels: tests of adaptation at the genetic level.

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Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology and Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University, 26 Oxford Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138, USA.

Erratum in

  • Nat Rev Genet. 2012 Jan;13(1):70.


Although much progress has been made in identifying the genes (and, in rare cases, mutations) that contribute to phenotypic variation, less is known about the effects that these genes have on fitness. Nonetheless, genes are commonly labelled as 'adaptive' if an allele has been shown to affect a phenotype with known or suspected functional importance or if patterns of nucleotide variation at the locus are consistent with positive selection. In these cases, the 'adaptive' designation may be premature and may lead to incorrect conclusions about the relationships between gene function and fitness. Experiments to test targets and agents of natural selection within a genomic context are necessary for identifying the adaptive consequences of individual alleles.

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