Wright was right: Leveraging old data and new methods to illustrate the critical role of epistasis in genetics and evolution. Academic Article uri icon


  • Much of evolutionary theory is predicated on assumptions about the relative importance of simple additive versus complex epistatic genetic architectures. Previous work suggests traits strongly associated with fitness will lack additive genetic variation, whereas traits less strongly associated with fitness are expected to exhibit more additive genetic variation. We use a quantitative genetics method, line cross analysis, to infer genetic architectures that contribute to trait divergence. By parsing over 1600 datasets by trait type, clade, and cross divergence, we estimated the relative importance of epistasis across the tree of life. In our comparison between life history traits and morphological traits, we found greater epistatic contributions to life history traits. Our comparison between plants and animals showed that animals have more epistatic contribution to trait divergence than plants. In our comparison of within-species versus between-species crosses, we found that only animals exhibit a greater epistatic contribution to trait divergence as divergence increases. While many scientists have argued that epistasis is ultimately of little importance, our results show that epistasis underlies much of trait divergence and must be accounted for in theory and practical applications like domestication, conservation breeding design, and understanding complex diseases.

published proceedings

  • Evolution

author list (cited authors)

  • Burch, J., Chin, M., Fontenot, B. E., Mandal, S., McKnight, T. D., Demuth, J. P., & Blackmon, H.

complete list of authors

  • Burch, Jorja||Chin, Maximos||Fontenot, Brian E||Mandal, Sabyasachi||McKnight, Thomas D||Demuth, Jeffery P||Blackmon, Heath

publication date

  • January 2024