The Inheritance of Continuous Characteristics

So far, we've dealt primarily with characteristics that have only a few distinct phenotypes. In Mendel's peas, for example, the seeds were either smooth or wrinkled, yellow or green; the coats of dogs were black, brown, or yellow; blood types were of four distinct types, A, B, AB, or O. Characteristics such as these, which have a few easily distinguished phenotypes, are called discontinuous characteristics.

Not all characteristics exhibit discontinuous pheno-types. Human height is an example of such a character; people do not come in just a few distinct heights but, rather, display a continuum of heights. Indeed, there are so many possible phenotypes of human height that we must use a measurement to describe a person's height. Characteristics that exhibit a continuous distribution of phenotypes are termed continuous characteristics. Because such characteristics have many possible phenotypes and must be described in quantitative terms, continuous characteristics are also called quantitative characteristics.

Continuous characteristics frequently arise because genes at many loci interact to produce the phenotypes. When a single locus with two alleles codes for a characteristic, there are three genotypes possible: AA, Aa, and aa. With two loci, each with two alleles, there are 32 = 9 genotypes possible. The number of genotypes coding for characteristic is 3", where n equals the number of loci with two alleles that influence the characteristic. For example, when a characteristic is determined by eight loci, each with two alleles, there are 38 = 65 61 different genotypes possible for this character. If each genotype produces a different phenotype, many pheno-types will be possible. The slight differences between the phe-notypes will be indistinguishable, and the characteristic will appear continuous. Characteristics encoded by genes at many loci are called polygenic characteristics.

The converse of polygeny is pleiotropy, in which one gene affects multiple characteristics. Many genes exhibit pleiotropy. PKU, mentioned earlier, results from a recessive allele; persons homozygous for this allele, if untreated, exhibit mental retardation, blue eyes, and light skin color.

Frequently the phenotypes of continuous characteristics are also influenced by environmental factors. Each genotype is capable of producing a range of phenotypes—it has a relatively broad norm of reaction. In this situation, the particular phenotype that results depends on both the genotype and the environmental conditions in which the genotype develops. For example, there may be only three genotypes coding for a characteristic, but, because each genotype has a broad norm of reaction, the phenotype of the character exhibits a continuous distribution. Many continuous characteristics are both polygenic and influenced by environmental factors; such characteristics are called multifactorial because many factors help determine the phenotype.

The inheritance of continuous characteristics may appear to be complex, but the alleles at each locus follow Mendel's principles and are inherited in the same way as alleles coding for simple, discontinuous characteristics. However, because many genes participate, environmental factors influence the phenotype, and the phenotypes do not sort out into a few distinct types, we cannot observe the distinct ratios that have allowed us to interpret the genetic basis of discontinuous characteristics. To analyze continuous characteristics, we must employ special statistical tools, as will be discussed in Chapter 22.

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