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What is Pleiotropy?

Pleiotropy occurs when one gene influences multiple, seemingly unrelated physiological traits. This genetic phenomenon is like a master switch in our DNA, controlling diverse aspects of our biology. Understanding pleiotropy not only unravels the complexity of genetics but also sheds light on how traits are interconnected. How might pleiotropy impact our approach to medicine and genetics? Join the conversation to uncover its implications.
Daniel Liden
Daniel Liden

Pleiotropy is a condition in which a single gene influences more than one phenotypic trait in an organism. A phenotypic trait is any observable trait, in contrast to a genotypic trait, which is involved with the genetic composition of an organism. The word pleiotropy has a Greek origin; it comes from the words pleion, meaning "more," and trepein, meaning "to turn" or "to convert." If an animal had a gene that affected both the length and color of its fur, that gene would be considered pleiotropic. People commonly say pleiotrophic instead of pleiotropic, but this is incorrect; pleiotropic is the correct term to describe a gene that affects multiple traits.

Genes contain the genetic information needed to produce amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins. Proteins have myriad purposes in almost all living things; they serve to regulate, facilitate, or directly cause countless different processes and reactions in most organisms. Some amino acids or proteins have several different effects in the body, so the gene that codes for such amino acids and proteins is considered to be pleiotropic. In most cases, the underlying mechanism of pleiotropy is said to be one gene that affects the production of a substance which influences several different parts of an organism. This is an important concept in evolutionary biology, in which the history and origin of different traits is considered to be very important.

If an animal has a gene that affects both the length and color of its fur, the gene is considered pleiotropic.
If an animal has a gene that affects both the length and color of its fur, the gene is considered pleiotropic.

Pleiotropy can, at times, cause harm to an organism. This happens when a defect in a single gene causes negative effects relating to several different traits of an organism. One example of this is the disease PKU, or phenylketonuria, which occurs in humans. It causes both mental retardation and a reduction in hair and skin pigmentation. The disease is caused by a genetic mutation and affects multiple traits, so it is an example of pleiotropy.

Some theories of human aging have come to rely heavily on antagonistic pleiotropy, a condition by which one gene codes for multiple traits that have different and competing effects. Some traits, such as testosterone production, help to increase general fitness early in life but can, later in life, lead to susceptibility to cancers and other diseases. The p53 gene presents a good example of antagonistic pleiotropy. While it suppresses cancer, it also suppresses stem cells that replenish old tissues. Studies focused on various bacteria have shown that antagonistic pleiotropy can be heavily based on the environment and on the various resources available to the organism.

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Discussion Comments


So, say you have a wild population of predominantly pale snakes and some dark snakes. It turns out that pale snakes are selected for because they are better camouflaged and dark snakes are predated because they stick out.

How does pleiotropy stop dark snakes being wiped out?

Is it because the pale snakes are still carrying the dark gene because it has more than one use?


What causes pleiotropy?


@robbie21 - I couldn't find any examples of benign but noticeable traits affected by pleiotropy. I guess if there are any, no one bothers to talk about them! Funnily enough, there are a lot of quirky traits that are controlled by just one gene, so they're among the easiest ones to plot on a Punnett square and to predict in a couple's children. If you can both roll your tongue like a taco, your kid will be able to, too.

Midline defects are more complicated than just a single-gene thing. Environment appears to have an impact, too.


I know that pleiotropy can cause a variety of genetic disorders, but are there any totally benign examples that you can see? (I.e., not just related to amino acids. Like if there were a gene that affected both, say, eye color and how fast your fingernails grew, that would be an example of what I'm talking about.)

Midline defects are an example of this, right?

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    • If an animal has a gene that affects both the length and color of its fur, the gene is considered pleiotropic.
      By: frank11
      If an animal has a gene that affects both the length and color of its fur, the gene is considered pleiotropic.