Sensitivity of quantitative traits to mutational effects and number of loci

Joshua G. Schraiber, Michael J. Landis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Scopus citations


When models of quantitative genetic variation are built from population genetic first principles, several assumptions are often made. One of the most important assumptions is that traits are controlled by many genes of small effect. This leads to a prediction of a Gaussian trait distribution in the population, via the Central Limit Theorem. Since these biological assumptions are often unknown or untrue, we characterized how finite numbers of loci or large mutational effects can impact the sampling distribution of a quantitative trait. To do so, we developed a neutral coalescent-based framework, allowing us to gain a detailed understanding of how number of loci and the underlying mutational model impacts the distribution of a quantitative trait. Through both analytical theory and simulation we found the normality assumption was highly sensitive to the details of the mutational process, with the greatest discrepancies arising when the number of loci was small or the mutational kernel was heavy-tailed. In particular, skewed mutational effects will produce skewed trait distributions and fat-tailed mutational kernels result in multimodal sampling distributions, even for traits controlled by a large number of loci. Since selection models and robust neutral models may produce qualitatively similar sampling distributions, we advise extra caution should be taken when interpreting model-based results for poorly understood systems of quantitative traits.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)85-93
Number of pages9
JournalTheoretical Population Biology
StatePublished - Jun 1 2015


  • Characteristic function
  • Coalescent theory
  • Neutral theory
  • Quantitative genetics


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