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74 genes linked to education level, but effect is minimal

16 May 2016
Appeared in BioNews 851

One of the largest-ever genetics studies in the social sciences has found 74 genetic variants that are associated with the amount of time an individual spends in education.

However, the researchers estimate that the variants they identified comprise just 0.43 percent of the variation in length of time spent studying across individuals.

In other words, for the variant with the largest effect, 'the difference between people with zero copies of the gene and those who have two copies predicts, on average, about nine more weeks of schooling,' Professor Daniel Benjamin, a co-author from the University of Southern California, said.

Professor Benjamin said that therefore 'simplistic interpretations of our results, such as calling them "genes for education", are totally misleading'. Nonetheless, Professor Robert Plomin, a proponent of the view that genes strongly influence educational attainment, and who was not involved in the study, told the Guardian that research had reached a 'tipping point' where genetic tests could be used to identify people's individual educational strengths and weaknesses.

The study, which was published in Nature, pulls together research by 253 researchers in 15 countries and considers time spent in education to be a reasonable correlate for educational attainment. The genomes of just under 300,000 people of European descent were analysed, and the 74 variants associated with time spent in education were picked out. The results were verified by testing to find the same associations in the 111,000 people who have their DNA stored in the UK BioBank.

The variants that were identified are disproportionately found in genomic regions that regulate fetal brain development. They also overlap with variants linked to scores on cognitive tests and genes thought to be associated with disorders such as Alzheimer's and schizophrenia. Professor Benjamin told the Guardian that the study might contribute to research in those fields as well.

Despite this possibility, some commentators have reacted angrily to the paper. 'Policymakers should pull the plug on this sort of work,' anthropologists Dr Anne Buchanan and Dr Kenneth Weiss from Pennsylvania State University said in a statement sent to Nature. 'We gain little that is useful in our understanding of this sort of trait by a massively large genetic approach in normal individuals.'

On the other hand, Professor Plomin was highly supportive of the study. He told the Guardian that the research brought genetic testing for educational capabilities one step closer. He added that such tests 'will move education closer to "personalised learning" rather than continuing to assume that a one-size-fits-all national curriculum works equally well for everyone'.

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