The term “polygenic inheritance” is used to refer to the inheritance of quantitative traits, traits which are influenced by multiple genes, not just one. In addition to involving multiple genes, polygenic inheritance also looks at the role of environment in someone's development.
Because many traits are spread out across a continuum, rather than being divided into black and white differences, polygenic inheritance helps to explain the way in which these traits are inherited and focused. A related concept is pleiotropy, an instance where one gene influences multiple traits.
Early Mendelian genetics focused on very simple genetic traits which could be explained by a single gene. For example, a flower might appear in either orange or yellow form, with no gradation between the colors. By studying plants and the ways in which they mutated, early researchers were able to learn more about the gene which determined flower color. However, by the early twentieth century, people were well aware that most traits are far too complex to be determined by a single gene, and the idea of polygenic inheritance was born.
One easily understood example of polygenic inheritance is height. People are not just short or tall; they have a variety of heights which run along a spectrum. Furthermore, height is also influenced by environment; someone born with tall genes could become short due to malnutrition or illness, for example, while someone born with short genes could become tall through genetic therapy. Basic genetics obviously wouldn't be enough to explain the wide diversity of human heights, but polygenic inheritance shows how multiple genes in combination with a person's environment can influence someone's phenotype, or physical appearance.
Skin color is another example of polygenic inheritance, as are many congenital diseases. Because polygenic inheritance is so complex, it can be a very absorbing and frustrating field of study. Researchers may struggle to identify all of the genes which play a role in a particular phenotype, and to identify places where such genes can go wrong. However, once researchers do learn more about the circumstances which lead to the expression of particular traits, it can be a very rewarding experience.
In pleiotropy, on the other hand, one gene is responsible for multiple things. Several congenital syndromes are examples of pleiotropy, in which a flaw in one gene causes widespread problems for a person. For example, sickle cell anemia is a form of pleiotropy, caused by a distinctive mutation in one gene which leads to a host of symptoms. In addition to causing mutations, pleiotropy also occurs in perfectly normal genes, although researchers tend to use it to track and understand mutations in particular.