- Research article
- Open Access
A bi-dimensional genome scan for prolificacy traits in pigs shows the existence of multiple epistatic QTL
© Noguera et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. 2009
Received: 15 June 2009
Accepted: 29 December 2009
Published: 29 December 2009
Prolificacy is the most important trait influencing the reproductive efficiency of pig production systems. The low heritability and sex-limited expression of prolificacy have hindered to some extent the improvement of this trait through artificial selection. Moreover, the relative contributions of additive, dominant and epistatic QTL to the genetic variance of pig prolificacy remain to be defined. In this work, we have undertaken this issue by performing one-dimensional and bi-dimensional genome scans for number of piglets born alive (NBA) and total number of piglets born (TNB) in a three generation Iberian by Meishan F2 intercross.
The one-dimensional genome scan for NBA and TNB revealed the existence of two genome-wide highly significant QTL located on SSC13 (P < 0.001) and SSC17 (P < 0.01) with effects on both traits. This relative paucity of significant results contrasted very strongly with the wide array of highly significant epistatic QTL that emerged in the bi-dimensional genome-wide scan analysis. As much as 18 epistatic QTL were found for NBA (four at P < 0.01 and five at P < 0.05) and TNB (three at P < 0.01 and six at P < 0.05), respectively. These epistatic QTL were distributed in multiple genomic regions, which covered 13 of the 18 pig autosomes, and they had small individual effects that ranged between 3 to 4% of the phenotypic variance. Different patterns of interactions (a × a, a × d, d × a and d × d) were found amongst the epistatic QTL pairs identified in the current work.
The complex inheritance of prolificacy traits in pigs has been evidenced by identifying multiple additive (SSC13 and SSC17), dominant and epistatic QTL in an Iberian × Meishan F2 intercross. Our results demonstrate that a significant fraction of the phenotypic variance of swine prolificacy traits can be attributed to first-order gene-by-gene interactions emphasizing that the phenotypic effects of alleles might be strongly modulated by the genetic background where they segregate.
In the last few years, a major breakthrough in the understanding of the genetic factors that shape complex traits has been the demonstration that, in several species, a non-negligible fraction of the genetic variance is explained by epistatic interactions. The recent identification of multiple epistatic QTL controlling complex traits in mice [1–4], chickens [5, 6], and in model organisms such as yeast  and Drosophila melanogaster[8, 9] has been a major achievement in the understanding of the genetic nature of complex traits. In addition, the discovery that gene expression is modulated, amongst others, by a plethora of regulatory RNAs with diverse functions and properties has added a new and thick layer of complexity in the subsequent identification of the polymorphisms involved in these interactions, since many of them might reside in non-coding regions .
In domestic species, traits relying on reproductive physiology, such as prolificacy and fecundity, have a notable impact on the financial outcome of farming enterprises. In pigs, prolificacy is a complex trait that displays a low heritability and strong heterosis . One-dimensional studies have reported the existence of several QTL affecting litter size in pigs [12–16]. However, only one of the reported QTL was significant on a genome-wide level (p < 0.05) , and there was a general lack of positional concordance amongst different genome scans . More importantly, these QTL studies exclusively dissected the additive and dominance components of litter size, thus neglecting the analysis of epistatic interactions that, paradoxically, are expected to explain a substantial portion of genetic variation of reproductive traits . In consequence, many unsolved questions concerning to the genetic architecture of pig prolificacy still remain to be answered. Which are the specific contributions of dominance and epistasis in modelling the phenotypic expression of this complex trait? If epistasis is important, which are the dimensions, geometry and intricacy of the network of interacting loci and which types of epistatic interactions are more relevant? In a cross between two inbred mice strains Peripato et al.  demonstrated the existence of eight interacting QTL that explain almost 49% of the phenotypic variance of litter size in this cross. These results highlighted the importance of non additive genetic variance as a fundamental component of prolificacy. Nevertheless, laboratory mice strains are usually bred in a very stable environment, where fluctuations are kept to a minimum, and they have been the subject of an intense process of genetic selection without parallel in any other mammal species. Moreover, mice belong to a different superorder (Euarchontoglires) than most of mammalian domestic species (Laurasiatheria), so it is reasonable to expect that in these two distantly related taxonomic groups the biology of reproduction can differ in many instances.
The relevance of the aforementioned questions led us to analyse the genetic architecture of prolificacy traits in pigs. In this way, we have performed an F2 intercross between two distinct European and Asian breeds, the Iberian and Meishan porcine breeds. Chinese Meishan is one of the most prolific pig breeds of the world being an excellent candidate population to perform these kinds of studies . Iberian is an autochthonous Spanish breed with a very low prolificacy . There is a very marked phenotypic difference for prolificacy traits between these two breeds (around 7 piglets per parity), being 14.3 the mean for the number of piglets born alive per parity of the Meishan breed  and 7.0 the mean for this trait of the Iberian Guadyerbas strain . Interestingly, the ancestors of these breeds are assumed to have diverged at least 150,000 years before present without subsequent introgressions . In consequence, it is reasonable to expect that these breeds have evolved, since then, by following independent processes of artificial selection and genetic drift, thereby establishing different adaptive epistatic genetic complexes . In the current work, we have performed both a one-dimensional and a bi-dimensional genome-wide scans for prolificacy traits by employing this Iberian by Meishan F2 intercross as a genetic resource. Our main objective was to elucidate if epistasis makes a major contribution in shaping the phenotypic variability of prolificacy in pigs.
Phenotypic data recorded in the F2 sows and linkage map
Data structure for number of piglets born alive (NBA) and total number of piglets born (TNB) in the Iberian × Meishan F2 experimental population.
Order of parity
N of litters
7.9 (3.4) a
Description of the markers employed for linkage analyses
One dimensional genome scan for TNB and NBA
Significant single quantitative trait loci (QTL) for number of piglets born alive (NBA) and total number of piglets born (TNB)
Position cM (CI)
Genome-wide significance level (P-value)
0.71 (0.18) (Meishan)
0.73 (0.19) (Iberian)
0.61 (0.18) (Meishan)
0.68 (0.18) (Iberian)
Highly significant additive and dominance effects were detected for the SSC13 and SSC17 QTL, although the direction of these effects (Iberian vs. Meishan) depended on the chromosome under consideration. For instance, the QTL on SSC13 for NBA increased additively by 0.71 (± 0.18) piglets per copy of the Meishan allele and it had a dominance effect of 0.69 (± 0.25) piglets. Conversely, the Iberian allele was the one associated with an increase in 0.73 (± 0.19) piglets per copy for the QTL on SSC17. Moreover, this QTL on SSC17 displayed a negative dominance effect (-0.82 ± 0.29). We estimated the degree of dominance as the ratio d/a between the estimated dominance (d) and the absolute value of the additive effect (a). Values of d/a larger than unity corresponds to overdominance, while a d/a ratio between 0 and 1 represents partial dominance. In both cases (QTL on SSC13 and SSC17), the estimated d/a values were consistent with a complete dominance situation. Similar values of additive and dominance effects were obtained for the TNB QTL on SSC13 and SSC17 (Table 3), a result that is not surprising since these two traits are highly correlated. Besides, the proportion of phenotypic variance explained by these two single QTL detected on SSC13 and SSC17 ranged from 2% to 3% for both TNB and NBA.
Bi-dimensional genome scans for NBA and TNB
Identification of multiple interacting QTL for NBA and TNB
Results of a bi-dimensional genome scan for number of piglets born alive (NBA)
Position 1 cM (CI)
Position 2 cM (CI)
a 1 (SE)
d 1 (SE)
a 2 (SE)
d 2 (SE)
a × a (SE)
a × d (SE)
d × a (SE)
d × d (SE)
Results of a bi-dimensional genome scan for total number of piglets born (TNB)
Position 1 cM (CI)
Position 2 cM (CI)
a 1 (SE)
d 1 (SE)
a 2 (SE)
d 2 (SE)
a × a (SE)
a × d (SE)
d × a (SE)
d × d (SE)
Partition of the phenotypic variance explained by epistatic QTL
We estimated the proportion of the phenotypic variance explained by epistatic genetic components for each TNB and NBA significant epistatic QTL pair. This contribution to the total phenotypic variance ranged from 3.26% (SSC14-SSC15) to 4.04% (SSC12-SSC12) for TNB and from 3.10% (SSC1-SSC6) to 3.62% (SSC9-SSC13) for NBA. The relative contribution of epistasis to the total phenotypic variance was estimated by adding the estimates of the partial epistatic effects of each epistatic interaction. The total phenotypic variance explained by the joint genetic effects of all epistatic QTL pairs for NBA and TNB was 37.6% and 42.4%, respectively. Nevertheless, we would like to mention that this approach might lead to an overestimation of the epistatic contribution because the models employed in our analysis are exclusive . We have calculated the repeatability with a standard animal model, resulting in an estimated value of 0.27 for both TNB and NBA. This value should be considered as the limit of the total variance explained by genetic effects. This result evidences that our estimates of epistatic contributions are clearly overestimated but, in spite of this drawback, we think it is reasonable to assume that a significant proportion of the phenotypic variance of prolificacy is explained by the joint genetic effects of epistatic QTL.
Classification of epistatic effects for NBA and TNB
According to Carlborg and Haley , the 'coadaptive' type of interaction occurs when positive a × a interaction effect is significant. This form of epistasis leads to enhanced performance of parental double homozygotes (I1I1-I2I2 and M1M1-M2M2) in comparison to the hybrid double homozygotes (I1I1-M2M2 or M1M1-I2I2). As an example, we found this specific pattern of epistasis in the NBA epistatic QTL pair SSC10-SSC15 (Figure 2c).
Additionally, we found another epistatic pattern where only significant a × d and/or d × a effects were present. These pairs of interacting QTL were included in a category that we named 'additive-by-dominance' epistasis because a × d and d × a interactions showed exactly the same pattern. In positive 'additive-by-dominance' interactions, one locus is overdominant, neutral, or underdominant, depending on the genotype at the second locus. Conversely, the second locus is additive, with the favoured allele being dependent on the genotype at the first locus. In negative 'additive-by-dominance' interactions, the genotypic values of homozygotes at one locus (_._I2I2 and _._M2M2) deviate from what is expectable under an additive model only when the second locus is heterozygous (I1M1-I2I2 and I1M1-M2M2, Figure 2d).
Finally, we considered as a separate category those QTL pairs that could not be classified into any of the preceding epistasis models. The main common feature of QTL pairs gathered in this group was that they all had a significant a × d or d × a epistatic term together with significant a × a and/or d × d terms, leading to 'complex' patterns of interactions (Figure 2e). These complex patterns might be explained by the existence of higher order interactions involving more than two loci or simply because small sample size for certain genotypic classes might lead to inaccurate estimates of the epistatic effects.
Identification of genome-wide significant QTL with additive and dominant effects on pig prolificacy
In the single QTL analyses, we found two genome-wide highly significant QTL located on SSC13 and SSC17 affecting NBA and TNB. So far, and to the best of our knowledge, only one study has described a genome-wide significant QTL (P < 0.05) detected at 88 cM on SSC15 for NBA . In the current work, the mode of gene action strongly differed amongst QTL. For instance, the additive effect detected for the SSC13 QTL stemmed from the Meishan breed, and determined an increase of 0.71 and 0.61 piglets for NBA and TNB, respectively. This result is in agreement with the phenotypic differences observed between the purebred parental lines. Conversely, beneficial alleles for the QTL found on SSC17 appeared to derive from the Iberian breed, with increases of 0.73 and 0.68 piglets for NBA and TNB, respectively. These cryptic Iberian QTL alleles, which increase prolificacy, provide a compelling example of the complexity of the genetic architecture of these traits. In addition, significant dominance effects were also detected for the two mentioned QTL; however, the direction of the effects was complete dominance for the QTL on SSC13, and recessivity for the QTL at SSC17.
Our results confirm the existence of several previously reported suggestive QTL for litter size in pigs. De Koning et al.  described one suggestive QTL for TNB on SSC17 (43 cM) in an F2 cross between Meishan and commercial Dutch lines. Bidanel et al.  reported a QTL for ovulation rate on SSC13 with a similar location (46 cM) and effect (favourable dominant effect of the Meishan allele of 0.7 ova shed). The experiment of Bidanel et al.  involved an F2 cross between the same Meishan population employed in our study and a Large White population. Moreover, Cassady et al.  described a QTL for number of stillborn piglets on SSC13 (101 cM), although its location is relatively distant to the one reported by us (50-55 cM). Other QTL for litter traits have been described on SSC5, SSC6, SSC7, SSC8, SSC11, SSC14, SSC16 and SSC18[12–15, 25]. However, and as mentioned above, the majority of QTL reported in previous studies none reached the genome-wide significant threshold while two QTL identified in our study did. The most likely explanation for this discrepancy relies on the fact that most of previous experiments involved crosses between the Meishan breed and other standard European pig populations, such as Large White pigs, which have been shown to differ in only three to five piglets born . Moreover, standard European breeds were strongly introgressed with Chinese breeds in the 18-19th centuries and, in consequence, they might not completely fulfil the assumptions and requirements of the F2 intercross design. Conversely, the Meishan and Iberian breeds are highly divergent both at the phenotypic (about 7 piglets per parity) and genetic levels. In this way, phylogenetic studies carried out with mitochondrial DNA have revealed that the Iberian breed has never been introgressed with Asian alleles . Finally, the number of available reproductive records was much larger in our experiment (881 experimental data) than in previous studies (between 200 and 400 experimental data) [12–15, 25].
Phenotypic variation of prolificacy traits is affected by a complex network of epistatic QTL
The statistical evidence suggesting that epistasis might be an important component of reproductive traits in mice  led us to perform a bi-dimensional genome scan for NBA and TNB. This analysis allowed us to demonstrate that phenotypic variation of these traits can be strongly influenced by a complex network of interacting loci. In this sense, this is the first study that shows genome-wide significant epistatic QTL affecting prolificacy in pigs. After implementing the highly stringent Bonferroni correction for multiple testing, as much as seven QTL interactions remained significant at the 1% bi-dimensional genome-wide level, whereas 11 were significant at the 5% genome-wide level. Rather than identifying one or a few master regions interacting with multiple loci (which would have yielded a star-like geometry of interactions), we found that most chromosomal regions interacted with a single counterpart. However, almost all chromosomes in which significant epistatic QTL were found participated in more than one interaction. Five of the significant epistatic interactions detected had pleiotropic effects on both TNB and NBA traits, whereas five were only related to TNB and three to NBA. These surprising differences for two highly genetically correlated traits , might be interpreted in the light of the statistical values of the Likelihood ratio obtained in the contrast between models and the stringent bi-dimensional genome-wide threshold assumed. For instance, the chromosome pair SSC10-SSC15 reached an LR value of 29.41 (p < 0.05) for NBA and an LR value of 22.33 ("no significant") for TNB. Alternatively, there might be a biological meaning behind the specific differences observed in the geometry of the NBA and TNB networks, thus indicating that although similar metabolic and physiological pathways may be implicated in the regulation of both traits, other mechanisms may be operating independently.
Epistatic QTL for pig prolificacy display different types of interactions
This genetic dissection of the epistatic component of prolificacy in pigs was completed with an analysis of the types of interactions detected in the bi-dimensional genome-wide scan. All the epistatic QTL had at least one significant type of interaction (see tables 4 and 5). In total, nine pairs showed additive by additive (a × a) epistasis, which in certain circumstances can have a 'nullification effect' because epistasis might cancel out the effects of individual loci at intermediate frequencies, making difficult to detect them in a conventional one-dimensional genome scan . Furthermore, seven pairs showed additive by dominance (a × d) epistasis, eleven pairs showed dominance by additive (d × a) epistasis, and sixteen pairs showed dominance by dominance (d × d) epistasis. All these forms of epistasis contribute to heterosis . It has been widely supported that heterosis plays an important role in the genetic architecture of reproductive traits [11, 12].
Several patterns of interactions among genotypes were identified and classified according to Carlborg and Haley  and Carlborg et al. . Eight pairs were classified as 'dominance-by-dominance' and two pairs as 'coadaptive' epistasis. The remaining QTL showed different patterns of epistasis from those previously described in the literature and were, therefore, grouped into two additional categories that we named 'additive-by-dominance' and 'complex' epistasis. 'dominance-by-dominance' epistasis leads to a deviated performance for the double heterozygotes compared to single heterozygotes. Among the d × d interactions found in our study, six had positive sign (Figure 2a) and two had negative sign (Figure 2b). In positive d × d interactions, the genotypic value of the double homozygotes is superior to the simple heterozygotes. Conversely, this pattern is reversed when the sign is negative. Coadaptive epistasis occurs when double homozygotes from the same parental line show enhanced performance . As mentioned above, we only found two QTL pairs which displayed this form of epistasis (Figure 2c). Coadaptive epistasis is fundamental to interpret post-zygotic reproductive isolation [30–32]. In each parental population, selection may have acted leading to fixation of different alleles at the relevant loci regulating prolificacy in a way that statistical epistasis is not apparent in either population. Second-generation hybrids (F2) exhibit combination of alleles at different loci that were not present in any of the parental breeds, leading to the disruption of "co-adapted" gene pools and the appearance of new phenotypes.
The third category included two pairs where only a × d and d × a effects were significant. We called this group 'additive-by-dominance' because the a × d and d × a interactions show the same patterns but with the roles of the loci reversed (Figure 2d). Finally, we found QTL pairs which show 'complex' patterns of interactions characterised by having a significant a × d or d × a term together with significant a × a and/or d × d (Figure 2e). These interactions yielded complex patterns in which the genotypic value for a given genotype at one locus drastically changes depending on the genotype at the second locus.
In summary, the bi-dimensional genome scan of an Iberian × Meishan F2 intercross has allowed to demonstrate that the genetic architecture of pig reproduction is mostly built as a complex network of interacting genes rather than being explained by the sum of the additive effects of a yet to be defined number of loci. Individual epistatic loci have moderate effects on the phenotypic variance of prolificacy and they are distributed in multiple chromosomal locations. Moreover, they display several types of interactions that sometimes cannot be easily ascribed to well defined models, thus suggesting the existence of additional interacting loci. In the next years, the fine mapping and identification of the causal mutations that explain the segregation of epistatic QTL in pigs will be a daunting but fascinating task that will likely unveil many of the secrets that underlie the biological grounds of complex traits.
Experimental design and phenotypic data
A three-generation F2 intercross between Iberian and Meishan pig breeds was generated to map prolificacy QTL. Eighteen Meishan sows were randomly mated by artificial insemination with three Iberian boars (Guadyerbas line) to produce the F1 progeny in the INRA GEPA experimental unit (Surgères, France). This F1 offspring was purchased and transferred to NOVA GENÈTICA S. A. experimental farm (Lleida, Spain) after weaning at 22-25 days of age. At sexual maturity, eight F1 boars and 97 F1 sows were randomly selected to obtain an F2 progeny. The F1 sows produced only one litter and were slaughtered after weaning. In total, 255 F2 reproductive sows were randomly selected and mated to unrelated boars. They produced a total of 881 litters, i.e. 3.45 parities per F2 sow on average. The number of piglets born alive (NBA) and the total number of piglets born (TNB) were recorded at farrowing. Animals were managed under standard intensive conditions; in all cases, reproduction was carried out by artificial insemination. Protocols were approved by the Ethical and Animal Care Committee at IRTA.
Microsatellite and single nucleotide polymorphism genotyping
DNA was extracted from either frozen blood or tail tissue using commercial protocols (Gentra Systems, Minneapolis). Purebred grandparents, F1 breeding pigs and the 255 F2 sows were genotyped for 115 markers: 109 microsatellites and 6 single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNP). Microsatellite loci were chosen based on their ease of scoring, the absence of null alleles, their genomic location and their informativeness. Microsatellite PCR products were analyzed with the Genescan 3.7 software (Applied Biosystems, Warrington, UK) in an ABI PRISM 3100 Genetic Analyzer (Applied Biosystems). Single nucleotide polymorphisms markers in DBH, BMPR1β, PRLR and VCAM1 genes were analyzed with the SNapSHOT ddNTP primer extension multiplex kit (Applied Biosystems, Warrington, UK) [33–36]. Moreover, two polymerase chain reaction restriction fragment length polymorphism (PCR-RFLP) markers were analysed: the MC1R gene G/A283 SNP was genotyped by PCR-RFLP with NspI . The PvuII estrogen receptor 1 polymorphism was genotyped following Short et al. . Linkage analysis was carried out by using the 'build' option of the CRI-MAP 2.4 program .
where y ijk was the ijk th observation for NBA or TNB, H i was the i th year-season fixed effect, O j was the j th order of parity fixed effect, u k was the random polygenic effect of the k th individual, p k was the random permanent environmental effects for the k th individual, a was the QTL additive effect, d was the dominance QTL effect and e ijkl was the random residual term; c a = pr(QQ) - pr(qq) and c d = 0.5pr(Qq) - 0.5(pr(QQ) + pr(qq)), where pr(QQ) was the probability of being homozygous of Iberian origin, pr(qq) was the probability of being homozygous of Meishan origin and pr(Qq) was the probability of being heterozygous. For computational reasons, heritability (h2) and percentage of permanent environmental effect (p2) were assumed to be known. They were obtained from the posterior mode of a previous Bayesian analysis. Estimates for h2 and p2 were 0.22 and 0.05, respectively. The analyses were performed at every centimorgan along the 2,017 cM of the 18 autosomes, by means of a likelihood ratio test (LR) comparing the models with and without the QTL effects. Nominal P-values were calculated assuming a chi-squared distribution of the LR test. Yet, nominal significance levels cannot be used directly due to the large number of tests performed. Hence, genome-wide significance levels were calculated using a Bonferroni correction and assuming independence between statistical tests every 30 cM. The genome-wide critical values of LR test for level of significance associated with type I errors α = 0.10, 0.05, 0.01 and 0.001 were 13.36, 15.13, 18.27 and 23.22, respectively.
where a1 and a2 were the additive effects, d1 and d2 were the dominance effects for QTL 1 and 2, respectively. The coefficients ca 1, cd 1, ca 2and cd 2were calculated as before for locations 1 and 2.
The two-QTL analyses were performed using a full bi-dimensional genome scan. LR-tests comparing the models with and without the epistatic interaction effects (model 3 vs model 2) were computed at 1 cM intervals along the 2,017 cM of the 18 autosomes for each of the two QTL, leading to a total of 2,069,595 regression analyses for both NBA and TNB. The values of h2 and p2 used in this analysis were identical to those considered in model 1. The statistical contrast between models for evidence of epistasis was carried out using an LR test with 4 degrees of freedom in the numerator. As before, bi-dimensional genome-wide levels of significance were calculated using a Bonferroni correction assuming statistical independence every 30 cM. The genome-wide critical values of LR test for level of significance associated with type I errors α = 0.10, 0.05, 0.01 and 0.001 were 25.14, 26.68, 30.17 and 35.06 respectively. Confidence intervals for QTL location were calculated using the Likelihood drop method . Finally, we calculated the expected values of the nine genotypic classes using the Cockerham's F2-metric model . In addition, statistical significance was independently assessed by using an approach based on the False Discovery Rate -FDR- , that was calculated based on nominal P-values every 30 cM, as well as by employing a parametric bootstrap method .
Financial support was provided by the Spanish Ministerio de Educación y Ciencia (Grant AGL2000-1229-C03). Our sincere acknowledgment to Miguel Angel Toro (INIA) for valuable discussions and useful comments. The authors are indebted to the staff of Nova Genètica, in particular to E. Ramells, F. Marquez, R. Malé, F. Rovira, for cooperating in the experimental protocol, and I. Riart (IRTA) and J. C. Caritez (INRA) for their technical support. The authors gratefully acknowledge the contributions of the INRA (France) and the CIA El Dehesón del Encinar (Spain) for providing the purebred Meishan sows and Iberian boars, respectively.
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