Pleiotropy in developmental regulation by flowering-pathway genes: is it an evolutionary constraint?

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Pleiotropy occurs when one gene influences more than one trait, contributing to genetic correlations among traits. Consequently, it is considered a constraint on the evolution of adaptive phenotypes because of potential antagonistic selection on correlated traits, or, alternatively, preservation of functional trait combinations. Such evolutionary constraints may be mitigated by the evolution of different functions of pleiotropic genes in their regulation of different traits. Arabidopsis thaliana flowering-time genes, and the pathways in which they operate, are among the most thoroughly studied regarding molecular functions, phenotypic effects, and adaptive significance. Many of them show strong pleiotropic effects. Here, we review examples of pleiotropy of flowering-time genes and highlight those that also influence seed germination. Some genes appear to operate in the same genetic pathways when regulating both traits, whereas others show diversity of function in their regulation, either interacting with the same genetic partners but in different ways or potentially interacting with different partners. We discuss how functional diversification of pleiotropic genes in the regulation of different traits across the life cycle may mitigate evolutionary constraints of pleiotropy, permitting traits to respond more independently to environmental cues, and how it may even contribute to the evolutionary divergence of gene function across taxa.