Genetically tractable model organisms from phages to mice have taught us invaluable lessons about fundamental biological processes and disease-causing mutations. Owing to technological and computational advances, human biology and the causes of human diseases have become accessible as never before. Progress in identifying genetic determinants for human diseases has been most remarkable for Mendelian traits. In contrast, identifying genetic determinants for complex diseases such as diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular and neurological diseases has remained challenging, despite the fact that these diseases cluster in families. Hundreds of variants associated with complex diseases have been found in genome-wide association studies (GWAS), yet most of these variants explain only a modest amount of the observed heritability, a phenomenon known as "missing heritability." The missing heritability has been attributed to many factors, mainly inadequacies in genotyping and phenotyping. We argue that lessons learned about complex traits in model organisms offer an alternative explanation for missing heritability in humans. In diverse model organisms, phenotypic robustness differs among individuals, and those with decreased robustness show increased penetrance of mutations and express previously cryptic genetic variation. We propose that phenotypic robustness also differs among humans and that individuals with lower robustness will be more responsive to genetic and environmental perturbations and hence susceptible to disease. Phenotypic robustness is a quantitative trait that can be accurately measured in model organisms, but not as yet in humans. We propose feasible approaches to measure robustness in large human populations, proof-of-principle experiments for robustness markers in model organisms, and a new GWAS design that takes differences in robustness into account.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
- Molecular Biology
- Cancer Research