Science

Massive Harvard-led genetic twin study homes in on the nature versus nurture debate

Massive Harvard-led genetic tw...
Extensive research has concluded approximately 40 percent of the studied conditions were primarily heritable
Extensive research has concluded approximately 40 percent of the studied conditions were primarily heritable
View 1 Image
Extensive research has concluded approximately 40 percent of the studied conditions were primarily heritable
1/1
Extensive research has concluded approximately 40 percent of the studied conditions were primarily heritable

A massive new study has crunched the data of hundreds of thousands of siblings and twins in the United States in an effort to uncover the effects of genes and environment in over 500 different conditions. Targeting over 50,000 twin pairs, the research is the first of its kind to use large-scale data analysis in this way to evaluate the heritability of such a broad range of conditions.

"The nurture-versus-nature question is very much at the heart of our study," explains Chirag Patel, senior author on the new study. "We foresee the value of this type of large-scale analysis will be in shining light on the relative contribution of genes versus shared environment in a multitude of diseases."

The study homed in on over 700,000 sibling pairs, and over 56,000 twin pairs. In order to separate the effects of genes from environment, variable factors such as air pollution, climate, and socioeconomic status were accounted for using each individual's ZIP code.

The data was only able to track young twin pairs, up to the age of 24 years, and work from single snapshots in time (being based on data recorded in relation to health insurance claims through doctor or clinic visits). This means diseases that develop more slowly with age, such as neurodegenerative conditions, could not be accurately evaluated.

Despite these limitations, some of the more obvious results – such as lead poisoning being nearly entirely driven by environmental factors – affirm the value of the results and solidify the veracity of some of the more unexpected outcomes.

Obesity, for example, was found to be strongly driven by genetics, however when evaluating the data for morbid obesity it seems socioeconomic status plays a large role. The implication would be that while milder forms of obesity are underpinned primarily by genetics, it is the environment that plays a major role in the push up to cases of morbid obesity.

"This finding opens up a whole slew of questions, including whether and how a change in socioeconomic status and lifestyle might compare against genetic predisposition to obesity," says Patel.

Overall the researchers suggest around 40 percent of the studied conditions are primarily heritable, and 25 percent could be seen to be to be driven by social or environmental factors. Eye disorders and respiratory diseases showed the highest level of environmental influence, while cognitive disorders showed the highest level of genetic heritability, particularly conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

It is clear that for the vast majority of conditions there is no single determining factor – instead there is a complicated interplay between genes and environment. The results are complex and dense, but the researchers created a web portal to allow any interested parties a way to dig through the mass of compelling correlations. The website is called CaTCH (Claims analysis of Twins Correlations and Heritability) and the ultimate goal is to help inform future research directions and health policy decisions.

"Our findings can provide signposts that inform subsequent research efforts and help scientists narrowly focus their pursuits," explains Chirag Lakhani, first author on the study. "For example, if our study of twins shows that there is very little heritability effect in a certain family of eye disorders, then future research should pursue alternative explanations."

Take a closer look at all the results on the CaTCH website.

The study was published in the journal Nature Genetics.

Source: Harvard Gazette

3 comments
Nobody
You don't have to be a twin to share genetic similarities. I don't have much interest in ancestry but most of my relatives are scientists, engineers or computer specialists. They even have similar hobbies. The interesting thing is I never knew any of these people until recently nor did they know each other.
Pupp1
Nobody said " I don't have much interest in ancestry but most of my relatives are scientists, engineers or computer specialists". and " I never knew any of these people until recently". But, you probably share a lot of environmental and social things. You may not know each other, but might share a common ancestor only a generation or two earlier. If he was an engineer or scientist, his offspring are more likely to have similar career paths, and his offspring are more likely to have social connections to others in that industry.
Nobody
Well Pupp1, I agree somewhat with you but I still think nature is by far the dominant force. People need higher IQs to successfully tackle the more technical fields. That comes from nature. When people first started doing web pages a few years ago, a very distant cousin who I had never heard of contacted me. He was into genealogy and sent pictures of himself and his family. He was nearly a twin to my father and both were engineers, farmers and pilots. What was even more surprising were his family photos because several of his children and grandchildren were dead ringers for one of my brothers and first cousins. Since everyone was so distantly related and couldn't have shared too much in the way of genetics, this was quite amazing and had nothing to do with nurture.