How genetic influence on human behaviour changes in time and place

12 Sep 17

How genetic influence on human behaviour changes in time and place

Research shows how genes affect educational attainment and fertility in different times and places.

A new study led by Professor Melinda Mills shows that genes linked with education and fertility depend on when and where you live. This means we could be missing important variations when we try to draw conclusions about the influence of genes on human behaviour, because combining data sets from vastly different countries and historical periods could muddy the waters.

Scientists regularly make use of genome-wide association studies (GWAS), which isolate genes linked to certain outcomes. For physical traits such as height and BMI (body mass index), the connection is relatively straightforward. When it comes to human behaviour, such as having children or succeeding in education, it can be more difficult to determine the influence of genes compared to other external factors.

The new research, published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, has found that the genes associated with different outcomes, such as education and fertility, differ over time and from place to place - perhaps because the social context for education and childbearing can vary so much in different times and cultures.

Lead author Dr Felix Tropf, from the Department of Sociology, University of Oxford and Nuffield College, said: ‘Our research is of great importance for the future of genetic discovery of behavioural outcomes. It suggests that the release of large samples such as the UK Biobank, which provides information on more than 500,000 genotyped individuals in a single dataset, will be a great milestone.’

Professor Melinda Mills, senior author and principal investigator of the project, added: ‘This study demonstrates the value of interdisciplinary work and how as social scientists our focus on the social environmental context allows us to ask fundamentally new questions. This study shows that particularly for behaviour and complex traits, genetic influences can be strongly dependent on the social environment.’

The full paper, "Hidden heritability due to heterogeneity across seven populations," is published in Nature Human Behaviour.

(This is an edited version of the original University of Oxford news story.)