Other Inheritance Patterns: Incomplete Dominance, Codominance, and Lethal Alleles

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Source: OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology

OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology

Not all genetic disorders are inherited in a dominant–recessive pattern. In incomplete dominance, the offspring express a heterozygous phenotype that is intermediate between one parent’s homozygous dominant trait and the other parent’s homozygous recessive trait. An example of this can be seen in snapdragons when red-flowered plants and white-flowered plants are crossed to produce pink-flowered plants. In humans, incomplete dominance occurs with one of the genes for hair texture. When one parent passes a curly hair allele (the incompletely dominant allele) and the other parent passes a straighthair allele, the effect on the offspring will be intermediate, resulting in hair that is wavy.

Codominance is characterized by the equal, distinct, and simultaneous expression of both parents’ different alleles. This pattern differs from the intermediate, blended features seen in incomplete dominance. A classic example of codominance in humans is ABO blood type. People are blood type A if they have an allele for an enzyme that facilitates the production of surface antigen A on their erythrocytes. This allele is designated I A . In the same manner, people are blood type B if they express an enzyme for the production of surface antigen B. People who have alleles for both enzymes (I A and I B ) produce both surface antigens A and B. As a result, they are blood type AB. Because the effect of both alleles (or enzymes) is observed, we say that the I A and I B alleles are codominant. There is also a third allele that determines blood type. This allele (i) produces a nonfunctional enzyme. People who have two i alleles do not produce either A or B surface antigens: they have type O blood. If a person has I A and i alleles, the person will have blood type A. Notice that it does not make any difference whether a person has two I A alleles or one I A and one i allele. In both cases, the person is blood type A. Because I A masks i, we say that I A is dominant to i.

Certain combinations of alleles can be lethal, meaning they prevent the individual from developing in utero, or cause a shortened life span. In recessive lethal inheritance patterns, a child who is born to two heterozygous (carrier) parents and who inherited the faulty allele from both would not survive. An example of this is Tay–Sachs, a fatal disorder of the nervous system. In this disorder, parents with one copy of the allele for the disorder are carriers. If they both transmit their abnormal allele, their offspring will develop the disease and will die in childhood, usually before age 5.

Dominant lethal inheritance patterns are much more rare because neither heterozygotes nor homozygotes survive. Of course, dominant lethal alleles that arise naturally through mutation and cause miscarriages or stillbirths are never transmitted to subsequent generations. However, some dominant lethal alleles, such as the allele for Huntington’s disease, cause a shortened life span but may not be identified until after the person reaches reproductive age and has children. Huntington’s disease causes irreversible nerve cell degeneration and death in 100 percent of affected individuals, but it may not be expressed until the individual reaches middle age. In this way, dominant lethal alleles can be maintained in the human population. Individuals with a family history of Huntington’s disease are typically offered genetic counseling, which can help them decide whether or not they wish to be tested for the faulty gene.


Betts, J. G., Young, K. A., Wise, J. A., Johnson, E., Poe, B., Kruse, D. H., … DeSaix, P. (n.d.). Anatomy and Physiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/anatomy-and-physiology