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Birth Defects

Multifactorial And Polygenic Inheritance

Many traits and diseases are caused by the interaction of inherited genes and the environment. These are known as "multifactorial" traits. While all genes interact with the environment, the impact of the environment in multifactorial traits and diseases is usually greater than in single-gene traits and diseases. Prenatal environmental influences are inevitably filtered through the maternal-placental system and include factors such as infections, drugs, tobacco or alcohol use, diabetes, and industrial toxins.

Polygenic traits and diseases are due to the cumulative effect of multiple genes, working together. Many congenital birth defects are thought to be multifactorial, such as pyloric stenosis (narrowing of the passage from stomach to intestine), cleft lip and palate, clubfoot, and neural tube defects. When found as isolated birth defects, these conditions are thought to be explained by a "multifactorial threshold model."

The multifactorial threshold model assumes the gene defects for multifactorial traits are normally distributed within the population. This means that almost everyone has some genes involved with these conditions, with most individuals having too few of them to cause disease. Individuals will not become affected with the condition unless they have a genetic liability that is significant enough to push them past the threshold, moving them out of the unaffected range and into the affected range (Figure 1).

Additional topics

Medicine EncyclopediaGenetics in Medicine - Part 1Birth Defects - Various Causes, Various Treatments, Single-gene Mutations, Autosomal Dominant Disorders, Functional Birth Defects