Scientists Spot 1,200 Genetic Twists Linked to Staying in School
A new study involving scientists from around the world, and genetic data from 1.1 million people, has pinpointed more than 1,200 genetic twists that influence how long we stay in school.
The authors are quick to note, however, that these genetic variations are not at all indicative of academic aptitude. Rather, they give researchers greater understanding of the “nature” side of the nature-nurture combo that makes us who we are and influences what we do.
“It would be completely misleading to characterize our results as identifying genes for education,” says Daniel Benjamin, an author of the study published in the journal Nature Genetics. Benjamin is an associate professor at the Center for Economic and Social Research at the University of Southern California.
The scientists say these variations combine into a “polygenic score” that can explain 11 to 13% of variation in educational attainment between individuals. This is an influence on educational attainment on par with the impact of demographic factors, like household income or maternal education.
“The most exciting part of this study is the polygenic score. Its level of predictive power for a behavioral outcome is truly remarkable,” says says Robbee Wedow, co-first author of the study and a researcher with the Institute for Behavioral Genetics. Wedow is also a graduate student at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
Previous research had identified 74 genes associated with educational attainment, but this much larger meta-analysis identified 1,271 genes. These genes aid in functions as diverse as communication between brain cells and neurotransmitter regulation. And the researchers say it’s likely still more genes relating to length of schooling will be identified in the future, as this study is replicated using genetic information from a more diverse set of people. (This study only examined genetic information from people of European descent.)
That said, genetic influence is one of many different factors that go into determining how long we stay in school.
“Having a low polygenic score absolutely does not mean that someone won’t achieve a high level of education,” Wedow says, adding that ambition, family dynamics, socioeconomic status and many more factors play a bigger role than the polygenic score in determining how far we go in school. “As with many other outcomes, it is a complex interplay between environment and genetics that matters.”