Supergenes and their role in evolution

M J Thompson, Chris D Jiggins


Adaptation is commonly a multidimensional problem, with changes in multiple traits required to match a complex environment. This is epitomized by balanced polymorphisms in which multiple phenotypes co-exist and are maintained in a population by a balance of selective forces. Consideration of such polymorphisms led to the concept of the supergene, where alternative phenotypes in a balanced polymorphism segregate as if controlled by a single genetic locus, resulting from tight genetic linkage between multiple functional loci. Recently, the molecular basis for several supergenes has been resolved. Thus, major chromosomal inversions have been shown to be associated with polymorphisms in butterflies, ants and birds, offering a mechanism for localised reduction in recombination. In several examples of plant self-incompatibility, the functional role of multiple elements within the supergene architecture has been demonstrated, conclusively showing that balanced polymorphism can be maintained at multiple coadapted and tightly linked elements. Despite recent criticism, we argue that the supergene concept remains relevant and is more testable than ever with modern molecular methods.


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