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A tall story: genetic factors in height determination

04 October 2010

By Julianna Photopoulos

Appeared in BioNews 578

Scientists have identified hundreds of common gene variants that may be associated with height, according to research published in the journal Nature.

An international study involving 183,727 individuals from the US, Canada, Europe and Australia, linked 180 different locations in their DNA to height development. These areas are associated with gene  affecting skeletal growth, bone density, as well as obesity.

Dr Joel Hirschhorn from Harvard Medical School, lead author of the study, said: 'This paper is the biggest step forward to date in understanding which of the genetic variants that differ between people account for our differences in height'.

Co-author, Dr Mike Weedon from Peninsula Medical School in Exeter, UK added: 'We have found clues to how genes related to growth are being regulated by nearby genetic variants as well as identifying new candidates that may play a role in growth'.

Scientists used genome -wide association studies, which are designed to scan millions of sites on large numbers of genomes to identify areas containing common variations that may be associated with a characteristic or disease.

Many of the gene variants were near genes already known to be associated with skeletal growth syndromes. Other areas found had no known relation to height, suggesting new targets for studying the biology of height.

About 80 percent of variation in height is determined by genetic factors, but the differences between tall and short people are not caused by single, simple differences between genes. The newly identified variants account for only about 10 percent of the variation in people's height.

Study author Professor Timothy Frayling from the University of Exeter, UK, said: 'Genome-wide association studies are very powerful tools, but even so, we are still some way short of understanding the full details of how differences in our genomes influence common human traits such as height'.

'Complex traits such as height are proving even more complex than we had first thought. We will need even more powerful tools and different approaches if we are to understand fully the differences between individuals'.

The research is a scientific collaboration between more than 200 institutions around the world that form the GIANT (Genetic Investigation of Anthropometric Traits) Consortium.

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