Heterosis is a term used in genetics and selective breeding. The term heterosis, also known as hybrid vigor or outbreeding enhancement, describes the increased strength of different characteristics in hybrids; the possibility to obtain a genetically superior individual by combining the virtues of its parents.
Heterosis is the opposite of inbreeding depression, which occurs with increasing homozygosity. The term often causes controversy, particularly in terms of the selective breeding of domestic animals, because it is sometimes believed that all crossbred plants or animals are genetically superior to their parents; this is true only in certain circumstances : when a hybrid is seen to be superior to its parents, this is known as hybrid vigor. When the opposite happens, and a hybrid inherits traits from their parents that makes them unfit for survival, the result is referred to as outbreeding depression. Typical examples of this are crosses between wild and hatchery fish that have incompatible adaptations.
Two competing hypotheses, not necessarily mutually exclusive, have been developed to explain hybrid vigour:
Heterosis in maize was famously demonstrated in the early 20th century by George H. Shull and Edward M. East after hybrid corn was invented by Dr. William James Beal of Michigan State University based on work begun in 1879 at the urging of Charles Darwin. Dr. Beal's work led to the first published account of a field experiment demonstrating hybrid vigor in corn, by Eugene Davenport and Perry Holden, 1881. These various pioneers of botany and related fields showed that crosses of inbred lines made from a Southern dent and a Northern flint, respectively, showed substantial heterosis and outyielded conventional cultivars of that era. However, at that time such hybrids could not be economically made on a large scale for use by farmers. Donald F. Jones at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, New Haven invented the first practical method of producing a high-yielding hybrid maize in 1914-1917. Jones' method produced a double-cross hybrid, which requires two crossing steps working from four distinct original inbred lines. Later work by corn breeders produced inbred lines with sufficient vigor for practical production of a commercial hybrid in a single step, the single-cross hybrids. Single-cross hybrids are made from just two original parent inbreds. They are generally more vigorous and also more uniform than the earlier double-cross hybrids. The process of creating these hybrids often involves detasseling.
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.