The search for the alleles that matter, the quantitative trait nucleotides (QTNs) that underlie heritable variation within populations and divergence among them, is a popular pursuit. But what is the question to which QTNs are the answer? Although their pursuit is often invoked as a means of addressing the molecular basis of phenotypic evolution or of estimating the roles of evolutionary forces, the QTNs that are accessible to experimentalists, QTNs of relatively large effect, may be uninformative about these issues if large-effect variants are unrepresentative of the alleles that matter. Although 20th century evolutionary biology generally viewed large-effect variants as atypical, the field has recently undergone a quiet realignment toward a view of readily discoverable large-effect alleles as the primary molecular substrates for evolution. I argue that neither theory nor data justify this realignment. Models and experimental findings covering broad swaths of evolutionary phenomena suggest that evolution often acts via large numbers of small-effect polygenes, individually undetectable. Moreover, these small-effect variants are different in kind, at the molecular level, from the large-effect alleles accessible to experimentalists. Although discoverable QTNs address some fundamental evolutionary questions, they are essentially misleading about many others.
© 2011 The Author(s). Evolution © 2011 The Society for the Study of Evolution.