Epigenetic effects are increasingly recognized as an important source of variation in complex traits and have emerged as the focus of a rapidly expanding area of research. Principle among these effects is genomic imprinting, which has generally been examined in analyses of complex traits by testing for parent-of-origin-dependent effects of alleles. However, in most of these analyses maternal effects are confounded with genomic imprinting because they can produce the same patterns of phenotypic variation expected for various forms of imprinting. Distinguishing between the two is critical for genetic and evolutionary studies because they have entirely different patterns of gene expression and evolutionary dynamics. Using a simple single-locus model, we show that maternal genetic effects can result in patterns that mimic those expected under genomic imprinting. We further demonstrate how maternal effects and imprinting effects can be distinguished using genomic data from parents and offspring. The model results are applied to a genome scan for quantitative trait loci (QTL) affecting growth- and weight-related traits in mice to illustrate how maternal effects can mimic imprinting. This genome scan revealed five separate maternal-effect loci that caused a diversity of patterns mimicking those expected under various modes of genomic imprinting. These results demonstrate that the appearance of parent-of-origin-dependent effects (POEs) of alleles at a locus cannot be taken as direct evidence that the locus is imprinted. Moreover, they show that, in gene mapping studies, genetic data from both parents and offspring are required to successfully differentiate between imprinting and maternal effects as the cause of apparent parent-of-origin effects of alleles.
Hager, R., Cheverud, J. M., & Wolf, J. B. (2008). Maternal effects as the cause of parent-of-origin dependent effects that mimic genomic imprinting. Genetics, 178(3), 1755-1762. https://doi.org/10.1534/genetics.107.080697