The role of gene interactions in the evolutionary process has long been controversial. Although some argue that they are not of importance, because most variation is additive, others claim that their effect in the long term can be substantial. Here, we focus on the long-term effects of genetic interactions under directional selection assuming no mutation or dominance, and that epistasis is symmetrical overall. We ask by how much the mean of a complex trait can be increased by selection and analyze two extreme regimes, in which either drift or selection dominate the dynamics of allele frequencies. In both scenarios, epistatic interactions affect the long-term response to selection by modulating the additive genetic variance. When drift dominates, we extend Robertson's [Robertson A (1960)Proc R Soc Lond B Biol Sci153(951):234-249] argument to show that, for any form of epistasis, the total response of a haploid population is proportional to the initial total genotypic variance. In contrast, the total response of a diploid population is increased by epistasis, for a given initial genotypic variance. When selection dominates, we show that the total selection response can only be increased by epistasis when some initially deleterious alleles become favored as the genetic background changes. We find a simple approximation for this effect and show that, in this regime, it is the structure of the genotype-phenotype map that matters and not the variance components of the population.
Keywords: adaptation; epistasis; genetic drift; genetic variance.