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The most misunderstood concept in genetics

That brings us to one of the most misunderstood concepts about genes: dominant and recessive.  For some reason, these terms create a fog of confusion, although they are quite simple to understand.  Anyone who knows how to play rock, paper, scissors (also called Rochambeau, Chong Ching Cha, and Jankenpo) can easily grasp the concept.


Many people I’ve asked think that dominant is “better” than recessive.  Wrong.  Dominant and recessive have little do with what is better or worse.  These terms simply describe the relative effects of different alleles of a gene.  So the first thing to keep straight is that dominant and recessive refer to alleles of a gene, not to different genes (at this level of discussion, anyways).


For example, assume that a plant or person has for its two copies of gene G two different alleles, m and n, both of which express themselves in different ways (like red or yellow flower color, or the ability or inability to roll your tongue).  Allele m is dominant to allele n if you see the trait associated with allele m in the presence of allele n. 


We cannot correctly say that allele m is simply “dominant”.  We can only say that allele m is dominant to some other allele of gene G.  So, you could have an allele k that is dominant to allele m, making m the recessive allele in the presence of allele k.


And to make it even more interesting, we can have a situation like this (I’ll use the greater than symbol > to indicate dominance):


            k > m > n > k


Allele k is dominant to m, m is dominant to n, but n is dominant to k.  It’s rock, paper, scissors genetics style!


Conversely, recessive means that, in the presence of a dominant allele, the recessive trait does not appear.  It merely means that a trait arising from a recessive allele is not visible in the presence of a dominant allele.  It does not mean that recessive is bad, weaker, undesirable, etc.  So if gentlemen do prefer blondes, then they are showing their desire for a recessive trait!

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