Pleiotropic scaling of gene effects and the 'cost of complexity'

Günter P Wagner, Jane P Kenney-Hunt, Mihaela Pavlicev, Joel R Peck, David Waxman, James M Cheverud

    Publications: Contribution to journalArticlePeer Reviewed


    As perceived by Darwin, evolutionary adaptation by the processes of mutation and selection is difficult to understand for complex features that are the product of numerous traits acting in concert, for example the eye or the apparatus of flight. Typically, mutations simultaneously affect multiple phenotypic characters. This phenomenon is known as pleiotropy. The impact of pleiotropy on evolution has for decades been the subject of formal analysis. Some authors have suggested that pleiotropy can impede evolutionary progress (a so-called 'cost of complexity'). The plausibility of various phenomena attributed to pleiotropy depends on how many traits are affected by each mutation and on our understanding of the correlation between the number of traits affected by each gene substitution and the size of mutational effects on individual traits. Here we show, by studying pleiotropy in mice with the use of quantitative trait loci (QTLs) affecting skeletal characters, that most QTLs affect a relatively small subset of traits and that a substitution at a QTL has an effect on each trait that increases with the total number of traits affected. This suggests that evolution of higher organisms does not suffer a 'cost of complexity' because most mutations affect few traits and the size of the effects does not decrease with pleiotropy.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)470-2
    Number of pages3
    Issue number7186
    Publication statusPublished - 2008

    Austrian Fields of Science 2012

    • 106012 Evolutionary research


    • Animals
    • Biological Evolution
    • Body Size/genetics
    • Body Weight/genetics
    • Crosses, Genetic
    • Female
    • Male
    • Mice
    • Mice, Inbred Strains
    • Models, Genetic
    • Mutation/genetics
    • Phenotype
    • Quantitative Trait Loci/genetics
    • Selection, Genetic
    • Skeleton

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