The evolution of genomic imprinting: theories, predictions and empirical tests

Heredity (Edinb). 2014 Aug;113(2):119-28. doi: 10.1038/hdy.2014.29. Epub 2014 Apr 23.


The epigenetic phenomenon of genomic imprinting has motivated the development of numerous theories for its evolutionary origins and genomic distribution. In this review, we examine the three theories that have best withstood theoretical and empirical scrutiny. These are: Haig and colleagues' kinship theory; Day and Bonduriansky's sexual antagonism theory; and Wolf and Hager's maternal-offspring coadaptation theory. These theories have fundamentally different perspectives on the adaptive significance of imprinting. The kinship theory views imprinting as a mechanism to change gene dosage, with imprinting evolving because of the differential effect that gene dosage has on the fitness of matrilineal and patrilineal relatives. The sexual antagonism and maternal-offspring coadaptation theories view genomic imprinting as a mechanism to modify the resemblance of an individual to its two parents, with imprinting evolving to increase the probability of expressing the fitter of the two alleles at a locus. In an effort to stimulate further empirical work on the topic, we carefully detail the logic and assumptions of all three theories, clarify the specific predictions of each and suggest tests to discriminate between these alternative theories for why particular genes are imprinted.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Biological
  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Female
  • Gene Dosage
  • Gene Expression Regulation
  • Genomic Imprinting*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Models, Genetic
  • Organ Specificity / genetics
  • Selection, Genetic