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Genes guide A-level choices 'more than environment'

20 June 2016

By Dr Ashley Cartwright

Appeared in BioNews 856

Genetic factors influence not just achievement in further education, but also what subjects students take, a study suggests.

The researchers, led by Professor Robert Plomin of King's College London, a prominent proponent of the use of genetics research in education, analysed information from the Twins Early Developmental Study (TEDS).

TEDS comprises data on 6500 twin pairs in the UK and includes information on A-Level subjects and results. The researchers tried to calculate whether environment or genetics were more important in determining subject selection and grades by comparing data from identical and non-identical twins. Identical twins have the same DNA while non-identical twins share 50 percent of their DNA.

Initial findings from the study indicated that, across the sample, the choice to study A-Levels was influenced in roughly equal measures by genetics (44 percent of the liability to make that choice) and environment (47 percent).

However, whether students chose science, technology, engineering and medicine (STEM) or humanity-related A-Level subjects was found to be more down to genetics. 'Choosing specific A-level subjects is more heritable (50 percent for humanities, 60 percent for STEM) and less influenced by shared environment (18 percent for humanities, 23 percent for STEM),' the authors write.

The researchers conclude that their findings indicate that DNA differences 'substantially affect differences in appetites as well as aptitudes [and] suggest a genetic way of thinking about education in which individuals actively create their own educational experiences in part based on their genetic propensities'.

The research was published in Scientific Reports.

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