School lockers

School lockers
Scholastic success cannot reliably be predicted by snippets of genetic code. [Image: ‘School’ from Paradox 56 under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license]
Headlines touting a recently discovered link between particular snippets of DNA and academic success skew a complicated (and fascinating) story that’s hidden in our genes. As described in Nature, a team of researchers from all over the world studied the genomes of hundreds of thousands of people and found a correlation between “educational attainment” and specific genetic variations.  This technique, called a genome-wide association study, is a useful hypothesis-generating mechanism and has been used to guide therapeutics development for diseases like cancer, brain disorders, and viral infections.

A closer look at the numbers in this study, however, throws cold water on the enticing notion of Limitless-style “smart pills.”  The correlation between educational attainment, defined as the number of completed school years, and the presence of particular genetic variations is statistically significant, but it only accounts for 0.43% of the differences in education that were observed.  Furthermore, this effect is spread over 74 different locations in the genome, with the strongest effect accounting for a mere 0.035%.  In contrast, external factors like socioeconomic status and nutrition likely play a much larger role.

Yet, it’s equally imprudent to dismiss the study altogether.  The connection – slight as it may be – between specific genetic variants and a trait that is profoundly affected by someone’s surroundings hints at a nuanced relationship between our sub-microscopic genes and the macroscopic world in which we live.  We took our first glimpse at the human genome over 15 years ago, but we still don’t know what many of our genes do, how they interact with one another, and why some are so heavily influenced by our environment.

Acknowledgments: Many thanks to Jamilla Akhund-Zade, a graduate student in the Molecules, Cells, and Organisms Program at Harvard University, for providing her expertise and commentary on the topic.

Managing Correspondent: Christopher Gerry

Original Research: Genome-wide association study identifies 74 loci associated with educational attainment – Nature

Media Coverage: Scientists found 74 genetic variants linked to education level – but their impact is minuscule – The Verge

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