Supergenes and complex phenotypes

Current Biology : CB
Tanja SchwanderLaurent Keller


Understanding the molecular underpinnings of evolutionary adaptations is a central focus of modern evolutionary biology. Recent studies have uncovered a panoply of complex phenotypes, including locally adapted ecotypes and cryptic morphs, divergent social behaviours in birds and insects, as well as alternative metabolic pathways in plants and fungi, that are regulated by clusters of tightly linked loci. These 'supergenes' segregate as stable polymorphisms within or between natural populations and influence ecologically relevant traits. Some supergenes may span entire chromosomes, because selection for reduced recombination between a supergene and a nearby locus providing additional benefits can lead to locus expansions with dynamics similar to those known for sex chromosomes. In addition to allowing for the co-segregation of adaptive variation within species, supergenes may facilitate the spread of complex phenotypes across species boundaries. Application of new genomic methods is likely to lead to the discovery of many additional supergenes in a broad range of organisms and reveal similar genetic architectures for convergently evolved phenotypes.


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