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Study suggests 'gene drain' from Britain's industrial areas

28 October 2019
Appeared in BioNews 1021

A new study suggests a 'gene drain' linked to social migration in Great Britain, where people with a genetic predisposition for higher educational attainment are more likely to leave former industrial regions and live in wealthier areas.

'An unintended side effect of merit-based social mobility is that it stimulates selective migration; people with a higher education are more likely to move to regions that offer better living conditions and professional opportunities,' lead author and geneticist Dr Abdel Abdellaoui and neuroscientist Dr Judy Luigjes (not involved in the study), both at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, wrote in The Scientist.

The team of international researchers used the UK BioBank data of approximately 450,000 individuals to investigate whether social traits, such as educational attainment, vary genetically across regions in the UK. They used over 1.3 million SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms) for 33 health and behavioural traits to calculate polygenic scores, which measure the importance of genetics for a certain characteristic. The researchers found that people living in poorer areas, such as coal-mining regions, had fewer genetic variants associated with staying in school longer or continuing to higher education.

'If that goes on for multiple generations, then for the sort of social inequalities already there, you run the risk of increasing those inequalities on a biological level,' Dr Abdellaoui told Nature.

He explains in The Scientist that these conditions 'stimulate outwards migration, worse health outcomes, and likely worse educational outcomes as well' but the problem could be solved by improving the living conditions of the poorer areas.

But it is not clear yet why these genes are linked to educational attainment. Professor Peter Visscher, a geneticist at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia who was involved in the study, said: 'I see that as a proxy for genes to do with intelligence and maybe perseverance, and maybe a bit of risk-taking.'

'It's a combination of environmental and genetic effects,' said Dr Abdellaoui, who also points out that the authors are not suggesting that the genes are the only factor of an individual's educational outcome.

'The results of this kind of study are based on associations, and must be presented very carefully to prevent suggestions that a person's genes determine their outcomes,' Dr Daniel Benjamin, a behavioural economist at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, told Nature. 'People have a really hard time understanding that genes don't determine behaviour.'

Dr Tim Morris, an epidemiologist at the University of Bristol, also expressed some concerns about the study: 'My main fear is that these results will be over-interpreted. They are informative descriptive statistics, but descriptive nonetheless.'

He added that the regional results have to be interpreted with care because the UK BioBank data are extremely selective and may not fully represent the populations of the former industrial areas.

However, the approach could help researchers understand how the environment affects complex behavioural traits. 'It is super-exciting,' said Professor Philipp Koellinger, a genoeconomist at Vrije University Amsterdam, the Netherlands. 'It gives us better and more-precise ways for scientists to answer questions they have been interested in for a long time.'

The study was published in Nature Human Behaviour.

Genetic correlates of social stratification in Great Britain
Nature Human Behaviour |  21 October 2019
Opinion: The Nature of Social Inequalities in Great Britain
The Scientist |  21 October 2019
Research reveals how migration affects DNA patterns in the UK
EurekAlert |  21 October 2019
The promise and peril of the new science of social genomics
Nature News |  21 October 2019
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