Metastable epialleles in mammals

Trends Genet. 2002 Jul;18(7):348-51. doi: 10.1016/s0168-9525(02)02709-9.


There are some mammalian alleles that display the unusual characteristic of variable expressivity in the absence of genetic heterogeneity. It has recently become evident that this is because the activity of these alleles is dependent on their epigenetic state. Interestingly, the epigenetic state is somewhat labile, resulting in phenotypic mosaicism between cells (variegation) and also between individuals (variable expressivity). The establishment of the epigenetic state occurs during early embryogenesis and is a probabilistic event that is influenced by whether the allele is carried on the paternal or maternal alleles. In addition, the epigenetic state determines whether these alleles are dominant. We propose that mammalian alleles with such characteristics should be termed metastable epialleles to distinguish them from traditional alleles. At this stage, it is unclear how common these alleles are, but an appreciation of their existence will aid in their identification.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Alleles*
  • Animals
  • Genes, Dominant*
  • Genomic Imprinting
  • Mammals / genetics*
  • Mice
  • Retroelements
  • Transgenes


  • Retroelements