Heterosis is a term used in genetics and selective breeding. The term heterosis, also known as hybrid vigor, hybrid vigour, or outbreeding enhancement, describes the increased strength of different characteristics in hybrids; the possibility to obtain a "better" individual by combining the virtues of its parents.
Heterosis is often the opposite process of inbreeding depression, which increases homozygosity. Although it is believed that heterosis is the action of many genes of small effect, whereas inbreeding depression is the action of a few genes of large effect. The term often causes controversy, particularly in terms of the selective breeding of domestic animals, because it is sometimes believed that all crossbred plants or animals are better than their parents; this is not necessarily true. Rather, when a hybrid is seen to be superior to its parents, this is known as hybrid vigor. It may also happen that a hybrid inherits such different traits from their parents that make them unfit for survival. This is known as outbreeding depression, typical examples of which are crosses between wild and hatchery fish that have incompatible adaptations. Heterosis can be classified into mid-parent heterosis, in which the hybrid shows increased strength which is greater than the average of both parents, and best-parent heterosis, in which the hybrid's increased strength is greater than that of the strongest parent. Mid-parent heterosis is more common in nature, and it is easier to explain (by mechanism of gene dominance; see below).
Genetic basis of heterosis
Two leading hypotheses explain the genetic basis for fitness advantage in heterosis.
The overdominance hypothesis implies that the combination of divergent alleles at a particular locus will result in a higher fitness in the heterozygote than in the homozygote. Take the example of parasite resistance controlled by gene A, with two alleles A and a. The heterozygous individual will then be able to express a broader array of parasite resistance alleles and thus resist a broader array of parasites. The homozygous individual, on the other hand, will only express one allele of gene A (either A or a) and therefore will not resist as many parasites as the heterozygote.
The second hypothesis involves avoidance of deleterious recessive genes (also called the general dominance hypothesis), such that heterozygous individuals will express less deleterious recessive alleles than its homozygous counterpart.
The two hypotheses will have different consequences on the gene expression profile of the individuals. If over-dominance is the main cause for the fitness advantages of heterosis, then there should be an over-expression of certain genes in the heterozygous offspring compared to the homozygous parents. On the other hand, if avoidance of deleterious recessive genes is the cause, then there should be fewer genes that are under-expressed in the heterozygous offspring compared to the parents. Furthermore, for any given gene, the expression should be comparable to the one observed in the best of the two parents.
Nearly all the field corn now grown in the United States and most other developed nations is hybrid corn. Modern corn hybrids substantially outyield conventional cultivars and respond better to fertilization.
Heterosis in maize was first demonstrated in the early 20th century by George H. Shull and Edward M. East. They showed that crosses of inbred lines made from a Southern dent and a Northern flint, respectively, showed substantial heterosis and outyielded conventional cultivars of that era. However, at that time such hybrids could not be economically made on a large scale for use by farmers. Donald F. Jones at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, New Haven invented the first practical method of producing a high-yielding hybrid maize in 1914-1917. Jones' method produced a double-cross hybrid, which requires two crossing steps working from four distinct original inbred lines. Later work by corn breeders produced inbred lines with sufficient vigor for practical production of a commercial hybrid in a single step, the single-cross hybrids. Single-cross hybrids are made from just two original parent inbreds. They are generally more vigorous and also more uniform than the earlier double-cross hybrids.
- HYBRID VIGOR IN PLANTS AND ITS RELATIONSHIP TO INSECT POLLINATION - a section from Insect Pollination Of Cultivated Crop Plants by S.E. McGregor, USDA
- F1 Hybrids General Discussion - professor's notes from an Oregon State University course
- Hybrids & Heirlooms - an article from University of Illinois Extension
- Mingroni, M.A. (2004). "The secular rise in IQ: Giving heterosis a closer look". Intelligence. 32: 65&ndash, 83.
- Nagoshi, C. T. & Johnson, R. C. (1986). "The ubiquity of g". Personality and Individual Differences. 7: 201&ndash, 207.
- Birchler JA, Auger DL, Riddle NC. (2003) "In search of the molecular basis of heterosis". Plant Cell 15(10):2236-9