Weak Epistasis Generally Stabilizes Phenotypes in a Mouse Intercross.

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PLoS Genet 2016 Feb 1; 12(2):e1005805.






The extent and strength of epistasis is commonly unresolved in genetic studies, and observed epistasis is often difficult to interpret in terms of biological consequences or overall genetic architecture. We investigated the prevalence and consequences of epistasis by analyzing four body composition phenotypes-body weight, body fat percentage, femoral density, and femoral circumference-in a large F2 intercross of B6-lit/lit and C3.B6-lit/lit mice. We used Combined Analysis of Pleiotropy and Epistasis (CAPE) to examine interactions for the four phenotypes simultaneously, which revealed an extensive directed network of genetic loci interacting with each other, circulating IGF1, and sex to influence these phenotypes. The majority of epistatic interactions had small effects relative to additive effects of individual loci, and tended to stabilize phenotypes towards the mean of the population rather than extremes. Interactive effects of two alleles inherited from one parental strain commonly resulted in phenotypes closer to the population mean than the additive effects from the two loci, and often much closer to the mean than either single-locus model. Alternatively, combinations of alleles inherited from different parent strains contribute to more extreme phenotypes not observed in either parental strain. This class of phenotype-stabilizing interactions has effects that are close to additive and are thus difficult to detect except in very large intercrosses. Nevertheless, we found these interactions to be useful in generating hypotheses for functional relationships between genetic loci. Our findings suggest that while epistasis is often weak and unlikely to account for a large proportion of heritable variance, even small-effect genetic interactions can facilitate hypotheses of underlying biology in well-powered studies. PLoS Genet 2016 Feb 1; 12(2):e1005805.