The premise of genetic analysis is that a causal link exists between phenotypic and allelic variation. However, it has long been documented that mutant phenotypes are not a simple result of a single DNA lesion, but are instead due to interactions of the focal allele with other genes and the environment. Although an experimentally rigorous approach focused on individual mutations and isogenic control strains has facilitated amazing progress within genetics and related fields, a glimpse back suggests that a vast complexity has been omitted from our current understanding of allelic effects. Armed with traditional genetic analyses and the foundational knowledge they have provided, we argue that the time and tools are ripe to return to the underexplored aspects of gene function and embrace the context-dependent nature of genetic effects. We assert that a broad understanding of genetic effects and the evolutionary dynamics of alleles requires identifying how mutational outcomes depend upon the 'wild type' genetic background. Furthermore, we discuss how best to exploit genetic background effects to broaden genetic research programs.
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