Genetic architecture and balancing selection: the life and death of differentiated variants.
Balancing selection describes any form of natural selection, which results in the persistence of multiple variants of a trait at intermediate frequencies within populations. By offering up a snapshot of multiple co-occurring functional variants and their interactions, systems under balancing selection can reveal the evolutionary mechanisms favouring the emergence and persistence of adaptive variation in natural populations. We here focus on the mechanisms by which several functional variants for a given trait can arise, a process typically requiring multiple epistatic mutations. We highlight how balancing selection can favour specific features in the genetic architecture and review the evolutionary and molecular mechanisms shaping this architecture. First, balancing selection affects the number of loci underlying differentiated traits and their respective effects. Control by one or few loci favours the persistence of differentiated functional variants by limiting intergenic recombination, or its impact, and may sometimes lead to the evolution of supergenes. Chromosomal rearrangements, particularly inversions, preventing adaptive combinations from being dissociated are increasingly being noted as features of such systems. Similarly, due to the frequency of heterozygotes maintained by balancing selection, dominance may be a key property of adaptive variants. High heterozygosity and limited recombination also influence associated genetic load, as linked recessive deleterious mutations may be sheltered. The capture of deleterious elements in a locus under balancing selection may reinforce polymorphism by further promoting heterozygotes. Finally, according to recent genomewide scans, balanced polymorphism might be more pervasive than generally thought. We stress the need for both functional and ecological studies to characterize the evolutionary mechanisms operating in these systems.