Monogenic traits are not simple: lessons from phenylketonuria

Trends Genet. 1999 Jul;15(7):267-72. doi: 10.1016/s0168-9525(99)01761-8.


The classification of genetic disease into chromosomal, monogenic and multifactorial categories is an oversimplification. Phenylketonuria (PKU) is a classic 'monogenic' autosomal recessive disease in which mutation at the human PAH locus was deemed sufficient to explain the impaired function of the enzyme phenylalanine hydroxylase (enzymic phenotype), the attendant hyperphenylalaninemia (metabolic phenotype) and the resultant mental retardation (cognitive phenotype). In the era of molecular genetics, expectations for a consistently close correlation between the mutant genotype and variant phenotype have been somewhat disappointed, and PKU is used here to illustrate how and why this might be the case. So-called monogenic traits do, indeed, conform to long-accepted ideas about the expression of 'major' loci and their importance in determining parameters of phenotype, but the associated features are as complex, in their own ways, as those in so-called complex traits.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Alleles
  • Animals
  • Cognition
  • Humans
  • Phenotype
  • Phenylalanine / metabolism
  • Phenylalanine Hydroxylase / genetics
  • Phenylalanine Hydroxylase / metabolism
  • Phenylalanine Hydroxylase / physiology
  • Phenylketonurias / genetics*


  • Phenylalanine
  • Phenylalanine Hydroxylase