Heterozygosity-fitness correlations: a time for reappraisal

Evolution. 2010 May;64(5):1202-17. doi: 10.1111/j.1558-5646.2010.00966.x. Epub 2010 Feb 9.


Owing to the remarkable progress of molecular techniques, heterozygosity-fitness correlations (HFCs) have become a popular tool to study the impact of inbreeding in natural populations. However, their underlying mechanisms are often hotly debated. Here we argue that these "debates" rely on verbal arguments with no basis in existing theory and inappropriate statistical testing, and that it is time to reconcile HFC with its historical and theoretical fundaments. We show that available data are quantitatively and qualitatively consistent with inbreeding-based theory. HFC can be used to estimate the impact of inbreeding in populations, although such estimates are bound to be imprecise, especially when inbreeding is weak. Contrary to common belief, linkage disequilibrium is not an alternative to inbreeding, but rather comes with some forms of inbreeding, and is not restricted to closely linked loci. Finally, the contribution of local chromosomal effects to HFC, while predicted by inbreeding theory, is expected to be small, and has rarely if ever proven statistically significant using adequate tests. We provide guidelines to safely interpret and quantify HFCs, and present how HFCs can be used to quantify inbreeding load and unravel the structure of natural populations.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Genetics, Population
  • Heterozygote*