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What is a Polygenic Inheritance?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 21, 2024
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The term “polygenic inheritance” is used to refer to the inheritance of quantitative traits, traits which are influenced by multiple genes, not just one. In addition to involving multiple genes, polygenic inheritance also looks at the role of environment in someone's development.

Because many traits are spread out across a continuum, rather than being divided into black and white differences, polygenic inheritance helps to explain the way in which these traits are inherited and focused. A related concept is pleiotropy, an instance where one gene influences multiple traits.

Early Mendelian genetics focused on very simple genetic traits which could be explained by a single gene. For example, a flower might appear in either orange or yellow form, with no gradation between the colors. By studying plants and the ways in which they mutated, early researchers were able to learn more about the gene which determined flower color. However, by the early twentieth century, people were well aware that most traits are far too complex to be determined by a single gene, and the idea of polygenic inheritance was born.

One easily understood example of polygenic inheritance is height. People are not just short or tall; they have a variety of heights which run along a spectrum. Furthermore, height is also influenced by environment; someone born with tall genes could become short due to malnutrition or illness, for example, while someone born with short genes could become tall through genetic therapy. Basic genetics obviously wouldn't be enough to explain the wide diversity of human heights, but polygenic inheritance shows how multiple genes in combination with a person's environment can influence someone's phenotype, or physical appearance.

Skin color is another example of polygenic inheritance, as are many congenital diseases. Because polygenic inheritance is so complex, it can be a very absorbing and frustrating field of study. Researchers may struggle to identify all of the genes which play a role in a particular phenotype, and to identify places where such genes can go wrong. However, once researchers do learn more about the circumstances which lead to the expression of particular traits, it can be a very rewarding experience.

In pleiotropy, on the other hand, one gene is responsible for multiple things. Several congenital syndromes are examples of pleiotropy, in which a flaw in one gene causes widespread problems for a person. For example, sickle cell anemia is a form of pleiotropy, caused by a distinctive mutation in one gene which leads to a host of symptoms. In addition to causing mutations, pleiotropy also occurs in perfectly normal genes, although researchers tend to use it to track and understand mutations in particular.

All The Science is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All The Science researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon281501 — On Jul 24, 2012

@anon144458: Yes.

@Anon150024: No (multiple alleles).

By anon150024 — On Feb 06, 2011

Are blood types an example of Polygenic Inheritance?

By anon144458 — On Jan 19, 2011

question: is eye color for humans polygenic inheritance?

By anon132723 — On Dec 08, 2010

great page. this is very helpful. thanks to all of you.

By anon84211 — On May 14, 2010

Thanks a lot.

By anon79125 — On Apr 21, 2010

no no. Don't include more technical details. You have impossible-to-understand articles all over the internet to use. Leave one simple one for someone who just needs a summary.

By anon78338 — On Apr 18, 2010

thanks a lot. But it's much more informal. Include more technical details.

By anon76050 — On Apr 08, 2010

Thanks! This was very helpful for my biology project!

By anon74251 — On Mar 31, 2010

it really helped me a lot.

By anon65247 — On Feb 11, 2010

thanks! brief but concise explanation. Big help for me.

By anon64031 — On Feb 04, 2010

so would the chromosomes of a polygenic inheritance be autosomes?

By anon63582 — On Feb 02, 2010


By anon62723 — On Jan 28, 2010

this helped me very much. thank you.

By anon62638 — On Jan 27, 2010

so there are only three traits that a person has then? Like, hair, height, and eye color?

sorry I'm just trying to answer a bio question with graphs and I just needed to know if we only had three polygenic inherited traits.

By anon58392 — On Jan 01, 2010

thank you. this really helped with my science homework.

By anon57465 — On Dec 23, 2009

this did help with my bio assessment.

By anon56871 — On Dec 17, 2009

thanks for this brief and informative article. it really took a confusing subject and made it simple!

By anon55423 — On Dec 07, 2009

thank you! very helpful.

By anon53484 — On Nov 21, 2009

Very helpful!

By anon48824 — On Oct 15, 2009

fantastic page for my assignment on polygenic inheritance. thanks to all of you.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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