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Evolution. 2015 Dec;69(12):3025-38. doi: 10.1111/evo.12775. Epub 2015 Sep 29.

Alleles versus mutations: Understanding the evolution of genetic architecture requires a molecular perspective on allelic origins.

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Department of Biology, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Greensboro, North Carolina, 27402.


Perspectives on the role of large-effect quantitative trait loci (QTL) in the evolution of complex traits have shifted back and forth over the past few decades. Different sets of studies have produced contradictory insights on the evolution of genetic architecture. I argue that much of the confusion results from a failure to distinguish mutational and allelic effects, a limitation of using the Fisherian model of adaptive evolution as the lens through which the evolution of adaptive variation is examined. A molecular-based perspective reveals that allelic differences can involve the cumulative effects of many mutations plus intragenic recombination, a model that is supported by extensive empirical evidence. I discuss how different selection regimes could produce very different architectures of allelic effects under a molecular-based model, which may explain conflicting insights on genetic architecture from studies of variation within populations versus between divergently selected populations. I address shortcomings of genome-wide association study (GWAS) practices in light of more suitable models of allelic evolution, and suggest alternate GWAS strategies to generate more valid inferences about genetic architecture. Finally, I discuss how adopting more suitable models of allelic evolution could help redirect research on complex trait evolution toward addressing more meaningful questions in evolutionary biology.


Adaptive evolution; GWAS; QTL; allelic effects; complex traits; selection

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