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The reconciliation between Mendelian inheritance of discrete traits and the genetically based correlation between relatives for quantitative traits was Fisher's infinitesimal model of a large number of genetic variants, each with very small effects, whose causal effects could not be individually identified. The development of genome-wide genetic association studies (GWAS) raised the hope that it would be possible to identify single polymorphic variants with identifiable functional effects on complex traits. It soon became clear that, with larger and larger GWAS on more and more complex traits, most of the significant associations had such small effects, that identifying their individual functional effects was essentially hopeless. Polygenic risk scores that provide an overall estimate of the genetic propensity to a trait at the individual level have been developed using GWAS data. These provide useful identification of groups of individuals with substantially increased risks, which can lead to recommendations of medical treatments or behavioral modifications to reduce risks. However, each such claim will require extensive investigation to justify its practical application. The challenge now is to use limited genetic association studies to find individually identifiable variants of significant functional effect that can help to understand the molecular basis of complex diseases and traits, and so lead to improved disease prevention and treatment. This can best be achieved by 1) the study of rare variants, often chosen by careful candidate assessment, and 2) the careful choice of phenotypes, often extremes of a quantitative variable, or traits with relatively high heritability.

Original publication




Journal article


Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America


Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Publication Date





18924 - 18933


Genetic Variation, Quantitative Trait, Heritable, Multifactorial Inheritance, Genome-Wide Association Study, Humans, Phenotype, Models, Genetic