Sunday, February 3, 2013

Epistasis - interaction between genes

Why are crows black? It seems the answer has two components, the first being the mechanistic and easier to answer while the second is evolutionary. While it might not be the ultimate answer (which is of course 42), it does go much further towards the "why" than just the "how".

Epistasis is simply defined as "interaction between genes". However, in his earlier paper "The Language of Gene Interaction" he explains the 2 slightly different ways the term has been used.

William Bateson is credited with "inventing" the term in 1908-09 to explain the disagreement between the segregation ratios expected based on the action of separate genes and the actual results of a dihybrid cross. The action of one locus(epistatic) masking the effects of alleles at another locus (hypostatic) gives the effect of the epistatic locus "standing upon" the hypostatic locus. However, the term has expanded to cover, 
  1. Functional relationship between genes--Functional epistasis--protein-protein interactions
  2. Genetic ordering of pathways--Compositional epistasis--"measures the effects of allele substitution against a particular fixed genetic background"
  3. The quantitative differences of allele-specific effects--Statistical epistasis--"measures the average effect of allele substitution against the population average genetic background"

Epistasis as a Tool- Flower color in sweet peas

Non-Mendelian  segregation ratio of 9:7 in the cross of two white flowers to produce violet flowers has been attributed to mutations in 2 different genes in the anthocyanin pathway. This framework has been extended to elucidate the order of genes in pathways by using knock-out mutations.

High-throughput approaches that test the effects of all possible combinations of genes in an organism are being done using comprehensive deletion and knockdown libraries along with high-throughput maintenance and screening methods. Both qualitative and quantitative experiments have tested different number of gene knockouts with various genetic backgrounds to understand the interactions between genes. However, the actual number of possible interactions is still a limiting factor. Moreover, interactions need not be a simple presence-absence effect, different expression levels, mutations at various positions in a gene etc can produce other possible combinations of interactions. While knockout libraries have been widely used in Yeast, it is not as easily applicable to many other systems. RNAi knockdown libraries have been used to overcome these limitations. 

Presence of epistatic interactions has been an obstacle to the mapping of many traits to their genes. Recently, few traits with epistatic effects have been identified in human disease genetics. Evolutionary basis of the advent of epistatic effects has been explained by atleast 3 different models. Further analysis of cases involving epistasis is required to understand the role played by evolution in generating or driving evolution.

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