Early genome-wide association studies (GWAS) led to the surprising discovery that, for typical complex traits, the most significant genetic variants contribute only a small fraction of the estimated heritability. Instead, it has become clear that a huge number of common variants, each with tiny effects, explain most of the heritability. Previously, we argued that these patterns conflict with standard conceptual models, and that new models are needed. Here we provide a formal model in which genetic contributions to complex traits can be partitioned into direct effects from core genes, and indirect effects from peripheral genes acting as trans-regulators. We argue that the central importance of peripheral genes is a direct consequence of the large contribution of trans-acting variation to gene expression variation. In particular, we propose that if the core genes for a trait are co-regulated - as seems likely - then the effects of peripheral variation can be amplified by these co-regulated networks such that nearly all of the genetic variance is driven by peripheral genes. Thus our model proposes a framework for understanding key features of the architecture of complex traits.
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