Epistasis

In genetics, epistasis is the phenomenon where the effects of one gene are modified by one or several other genes, which are sometimes called modifier genes. The gene whose phenotype is expressed is called epistatic, while the phenotype altered or suppressed is called hypostatic. Epistasis can be contrasted with dominance, which is an interaction between alleles at the same gene locus. Epistasis is often studied in relation to Quantitative Trait Loci (QTL) and polygenic inheritance.

In general, the fitness increment (or expression?) of any one allele depends in a complicated way on many other alleles; but, because of the way that the science of population genetics was developed, evolutionary scientists tend to think of epistasis as the exception to the rule. In the first models of natural selection devised in the early 20th century, each gene was considered to make its own characteristic contribution to fitness, against an average background of other genes. Some introductory college courses still teach population genetics this way.

Epistasis and genetic interaction refer to different aspects of the same phenomenon. The term epistasis is widely used in population genetics and refers especially to the statistical properties of the phenomenon, and does not necessarily imply biochemical interaction between gene products. However, in general epistasis is used to denote the departure from 'independence' of the effects of different genetic loci. Confusion often arises due to the varied interpretation of 'independence' between different branches of biology.

Examples of tightly linked genes having epistatic effects on fitness are found in supergenes and the human major histocompatibility complex genes. The effect can occur directly at the genomic level, where one gene could code for a protein preventing transcription of the other gene. Alternatively, the effect can occur at the phenotypic level. For example, the gene causing albinism would hide the gene controlling color of a person's hair. In another example, a gene coding for a widow's peak would be hidden by a gene causing baldness. Fitness epistasis (where the affected trait is fitness) is one cause of linkage disequilibrium.

Studying genetic interactions can reveal gene function, the nature of the mutations, functional redundancy, and protein interactions. Because protein complexes are responsible for most biological functions, genetic interactions are a powerful tool.

Read more about Epistasis:  Classification By Fitness or Trait Value, Sex, Functional or Mechanistic Classification

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