Open Access Highly Accessed Open Badges Research

The contributions of normal variation and genetic background to mammalian gene expression

Colin Pritchard12, David Coil1, Sarah Hawley3, Li Hsu3 and Peter S Nelson1*

Author Affiliations

1 Divisions of Human Biology, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle, WA, 98109, USA

2 Clinical Research, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle, WA, 98109, USA

3 Public Health Sciences, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle, WA, 98109, USA

For all author emails, please log on.

Genome Biology 2006, 7:R26  doi:10.1186/gb-2006-7-3-r26

Published: 31 March 2006



Qualitative and quantitative variability in gene expression represents the substrate for external conditions to exert selective pressures for natural selection. Current technologies allow for some forms of genetic variation, such as DNA mutations and polymorphisms, to be determined accurately on a comprehensive scale. Other components of variability, such as stochastic events in cellular transcriptional and translational processes, are less well characterized. Although potentially important, the relative contributions of genomic versus epigenetic and stochastic factors to variation in gene expression have not been quantified in mammalian species.


In this study we compared microarray-based measures of hepatic transcript abundance levels within and between five different strains of Mus musculus. Within each strain 23% to 44% of all genes exhibited statistically significant differences in expression between genetically identical individuals (positive false discovery rate of 10%). Genes functionally associated with cell growth, cytokine activity, amine metabolism, and ubiquitination were enriched in this group. Genetic divergence between individuals of different strains also contributed to transcript abundance level differences, but to a lesser extent than intra-strain variation, with approximately 3% of all genes exhibiting inter-strain expression differences.


These results indicate that although DNA sequence fixes boundaries for gene expression variability, there remain considerable latitudes of expression within these genome-defined limits that have the potential to influence phenotypes. The extent of normal or expected natural variability in gene expression may provide an additional level of phenotypic opportunity for natural selection.