Before we look more closely at polygenic characteristics and relevant statistical methods, we need to more clearly define what is meant by a quantitative characteristic. Thus far, we have considered only quantitative characteristics that vary continuously in a population. A continuous characteristic can theoretically assume any value between two extremes; the number of phenotypes is limited only by our ability to precisely measure the phenotype. Human height is a continuous characteristic because, within certain limits, people can theoretically have any height. Although the number of phenotypes possible with a continuous characteristic is infinite, we often group similar phenotypes together for convenience; we may say that two people are both 5 feet 11 inches tall, but careful measurement may show that one is slightly taller than the other.
Some characteristics are not continuous but are nevertheless considered quantitative because they are determined by multiple genetic and environmental factors. Meristic characteristics, for instance, are measured in whole numbers. An example is litter size: a female mouse may have 4, 5, or 6 pups but not 4.13 pups. A meristic characteristic has a limited number of distinct phenotypes, but the underlying determination of the characteristic may still be quantitative. These characteristics must therefore be analyzed with the same techniques that we use to study continuous quantitative characteristics.
Another type of quantitative characteristic is a threshold characteristic, which is simply present or absent. Although threshold characteristics exhibit only two pheno-types, they are considered quantitative because they, too, are determined by multiple genetic and environmental factors. The expression of the characteristic depends on an underlying susceptibility (usually referred to as liability or risk) that
22.3 Threshold characteristics display only two possible phenotypes—the trait is either present or absent—but they are quantitative because the underlying susceptibility to the characteristic varies continuously. When the susceptibility exceeds a threshold value, the characteristic is expressed.
varies continuously. When the susceptibility is larger than a threshold value, a specific trait is expressed (I Figure 22.3). Diseases are often threshold characteristics because many factors, both genetic and environmental, contribute to disease susceptibility. If enough of the susceptibility factors are present, the disease develops; otherwise, it is absent. Although we focus on the genetics of continuous characteristics in this chapter, the same principles apply to many meristic and threshold characteristics.
It is important to point out that just because a characteristic can be measured on a continuous scale does not mean that it exhibits quantitative variation. One of the characteristics studied by Mendel was height of the pea plant, which can be described by measuring the length of the plant's stem. However, Mendel's particular plants exhibited only two distinct phenotypes (some were tall and others short), and these differences were determined by alleles at a single locus. The differences that Mendel studied were therefore discontinuous in nature.
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