Environment-dependent genotype-phenotype associations in avian breeding time

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Understanding how genes shape phenotypes is essential to assess the evolutionary potential of a trait. Identifying the genes underlying quantitative behavioral or life-history traits has, however, proven to be a major challenge. The majority of these traits are phenotypically plastic and different parts of the genome can be involved in shaping the trait under different environmental conditions. These variable genotype-phenotype associations could be one explanation for the limited success of genome-wide association studies in such traits. We here use avian seasonal timing of breeding, a trait that is highly plastic in response to spring temperature, to explore effects of such genotype-by-environment interactions in genome-wide association studies. We genotyped 2045 great tit females for 384081 single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) and recorded their egg-laying dates in the wild. When testing for associations between SNPs and egg-laying dates, no SNP reached genome-wide significance. We then explored whether SNP effects were modified by annual spring temperature by formally testing for an interaction between SNP effect and temperature. The models including the SNP temperature interaction performed consistently better although no SNP reached genome-wide significance. Our results suggest that the effects of genes shaping seasonal timing depended on annual spring temperature. Such environmentdependent effects are expected for any phenotypically plastic trait. Taking these effects into account will thus improve the success of detecting genes involved in phenotypically plastic traits, thereby leading to a better understanding of their evolutionary potential.




Gienapp, P., Laine, V. N., Mateman, A. C., van Oers, K., & Visser, M. E. (2017). Environment-dependent genotype-phenotype associations in avian breeding time. Frontiers in Genetics, 8(AUG). https://doi.org/10.3389/fgene.2017.00102

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