Gene function beyond the single trait: natural variation, gene effects, and evolutionary ecology in Arabidopsis thaliana


  • S. J. TONSOR,

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Biological Sciences, University of Pittsburgh, 4249 Fifth Avenue, Pittsburgh PA 15260, USA,
    Search for more papers by this author

    1. Departamento de Biotecnología, Instituto Nacional de Investigación y Tecnología Agraria y Alimentaria, Carretera de A Coruña, km 7, 28040, Madrid, Spain,
    2. Departamento de Genética Molecular de Plantas, Centro Nacional de Biotecnología, CSIC, Campus de la Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, Cantoblanco, 28049 Madrid, Spain,
    Search for more papers by this author

    1. Laboratory of Genetics, Wageningen University, Arboretumlaan 4, 6703 BD Wageningen, The Netherlands and
    2. Max Planck Institute for Plant Breeding Research, Carl-von-Linné-Weg 10, D-50892 Cologne, Germany
    Search for more papers by this author

Stephen J. Tonsor. E-mail:


The purpose of plant functional genomics is to describe the patterns of gene expression and internal plant function underlying the ecological functions that sustain plant growth and reproduction. Plants function as integrated systems in which metabolic and developmental pathways draw on common resource pools and respond to a relatively small number of signal/response systems. Plants are also integrated with their environment, exchanging energy and matter with their surroundings and are consequently sensitive to changes in energy and resource fluxes. These two levels of integration complicate the description of gene function. Internal integration results in single genes often affecting multiple characteristics (pleiotropy) and interacting with multiple other genes (epistasis). Integration with the external environment leads to gene expression and the genes’ phenotypic effects varying across environmental backgrounds (gene–environment interaction). An accurate description of the function of all genes requires an augmentation, already underway, of the study of isolated developmental and metabolic pathways to a more integrated approach involving the study of genetic effects across scales of variation usually regarded as the purview of ecological and evolutionary research. Since the evolution of gene function also depends on this complex of gene effects, progress in evolutionary genetics will also require understanding the nature of gene interactions and pleiotropy and the constraints and patterns they impose on adaptive evolution. Studying gene function in the context of the integrated organism is a major challenge, best met by developing co-ordinated research efforts in model systems. This review highlights natural variation in A. thaliana as a system for understanding integrated gene function in an ecological and evolutionary context. The current state of this research integration in A. thaliana is described by summarizing relevant approaches, current knowledge, and some potentially fruitful future studies. By introducing some of the fundamental questions of ecological and evolutionary research, experimental approaches and systems that can reveal new facets of gene function and gene effect are also described. A glossary is included in the Appendix.