Phenotypes are rarely consistent across genetic backgrounds and environments, but instead vary in many ways depending on allelic variants, unlinked genes, epigenetic factors, and environmental exposures. In the extreme, individuals carrying the same causal DNA sequence variant but on different backgrounds can be classified as having distinct conditions. Similarly, some individuals that carry disease alleles are nevertheless healthy despite affected family members in the same environment. These genetic background effects often result from the action of so-called "modifier genes" that modulate the phenotypic manifestation of target genes in an epistatic manner. While complicating the prospects for gene discovery and the feasibility of mechanistic studies, such effects are opportunities to gain a deeper understanding of gene interaction networks that provide organismal form and function as well as resilience to perturbation. Here, we review the principles of modifier genetics and assess progress in studies of modifier genes and their targets in both simple and complex traits. We propose that modifier effects emerge from gene interaction networks whose structure and function vary with genetic background and argue that these effects can be exploited as safe and effective ways to prevent, stabilize, and reverse disease and dysfunction.
Copyright © 2017 American Society of Human Genetics. Published by Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.