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Heterosis, or hybrid vigor, or outbreeding enhancement, is the improved or increased function of any biological quality in a hybrid offspring. The adjective derived from heterosis is heterotic.

Heterosis is the occurrence of a superior offspring from mixing the genetic contributions of its parents. These effects can be due to Mendelian or non-Mendelian inheritance.


In proposing the term heterosis to replace the older term heterozygosis, G.H. Shull aimed to avoid limiting the term to the effects that can be explained by heterozygosity in Mendelian inheritance.[1]

The physiological vigor of an organism as manifested in its rapidity of growth, its height and general robustness, is positively correlated with the degree of dissimilarity in the gametes by whose union the organism was formed … The more numerous the differences between the uniting gametes — at least within certain limits — the greater on the whole is the amount of stimulation … These differences need not be Mendelian in their inheritance … To avoid the implication that all the genotypic differences which stimulate cell-division, growth and other physiological activities of an organism are Mendelian in their inheritance and also to gain brevity of expression I suggest … that the word 'heterosis' be adopted.

Heterosis is the opposite of inbreeding depression. Inbreeding depression leads to offspring with deleterious traits due to homozygosity. The term heterosis often causes controversy, particularly in selective breeding of domestic animals, because it is sometimes claimed that all crossbred plants and are genetically superior. The inverse of heterosis, when a hybrid inherits traits from its parents that are not fully compatible, with deleterious results, is outbreeding depression.

Genetic basis of heterosis

Main article: Dominance versus overdominance

Two competing hypotheses, not necessarily mutually exclusive, have been developed to explain hybrid vigor. The dominance hypothesis attributes the superiority of hybrids to the suppression of undesirable (deleterious) recessive alleles from one parent by dominant alleles from the other. It attributes the poor performance of inbred strains to the loss of genetic diversity, with the strains becoming purely homozygous deleterious alleles at many loci. The overdominance hypothesis states that some combinations of alleles (which can be obtained by crossing two inbred strains) are especially advantageous when paired in a heterozygous individual. The concept of heterozygote advantage/overdominance is not restricted to hybrid lineages. This hypothesis is commonly invoked to explain the persistence of many alleles (most famously the erythrocyte-sickling allele) that are harmful in homozygotes; in normal circumstances, such harmful alleles would be removed from a population through the process of natural selection. Like the dominance hypothesis, it attributes the poor performance of many inbred strains to a high frequency of these harmful recessive alleles and the associated high frequency of homozygous-recessive genotypes.

Hybrid livestock

The concept of heterosis is also applied in the production of commercial livestock. In cattle, hybrids between Black Angus and Hereford produce a hybrid known as a "Black Baldy". In swine, "blue butts" are produced by the cross of Hampshire and Yorkshire. Other, more exotic hybrids such as "beefalo" are also used for specialty markets.

Within poultry, sex-linked genes have been used to create hybrids in which males and females can be sorted at one day old by color. Specific genes used for this are genes for barring and wing feather growth. Crosses of this sort create what are sold as Black Sex-links, Red Sex-links, and various other crosses that are known by trade names.

Commercial broilers are produced by crossing different strains of White Rocks and White Cornish, the Cornish providing a large frame and the Rocks providing the fast rate of gain. The hybrid vigor produced allows the production of uniform birds with a marketable carcass at 6–9 weeks of age.

Likewise, hybrids between different strains of White Leghorn are used to produce laying flocks that provide the majority white eggs for sale in the United States.


Experimental breeding of humans is considered unethical, so any evidence of heterosis in humans is derived from observational studies[2] It has been suggested that many beneficial effects on average health, intelligence and height have resulted from an increased heterosis, in turn resulting from increased mixing of the human population such as by urbanization.[3]

See also


  1. George Harrison Shull (1948). What Is "Heterosis"?. Genetics 33 (5): 439–446.
  2. PMID 13266803 (PMID 13266803)
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  3. Last paragraphs in Discussion section in: DOI:10.1038/ejhg.2008.48
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Further reading

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