As part of one of the largest human genetics studies to date, an international team of scientists has identified more than 1,200 genetic variants associated with the level of education a person completes. A ‘polygenic score’, which the researchers developed based on these variants, can explain more than 11% of the variance in educational attainment between the participants.
The study published in the journal Nature Genetics involved a staggering 1.1 million participants from 15 countries. The meta-analysis used information derived from 71 datasets, including some of the largest genetic datasets in the world, such as the UK Biobank and those belonging to personal genomics company 23andMe.
Researchers spent more than two years analyzing the genetic information on the participants, which they linked to questionnaires that gauged the number of school years they completed. The study participants were age 30 and older and were of European descent.
Previously, a much smaller study identified 74 gene variants — some known to be involved in brain development — that were moderately predictive of the number of completed school years. This time, the huge pool of data managed to surface a wealth of new gene variants that may influence the educational attainment — 1,271 gene variants, to be more precise. Some of these genes are involved in neuron-to-neuron communication and neurotransmitter secretion.
“[The study] moves us in a clearer direction in understanding the genetic architecture of complex behavior traits like educational attainment,” said co-first author Robbee Wedow, a graduate student in CU Boulder’s Department of Sociology and researcher with the Institute for Behavioral Genetics.
These 1,271 genes serve to explain about 4% of the variation in the number of completed school years across the individuals sampled in the meta-analysis. However, when the effects of all the variants were measured across the genome, the researchers were able to develop a polygenic score. The score was predictive of 11-13% of the variation in educational attainment.
However, the researchers stress that individual gene variants have little predictive value.
“It would be completely misleading to characterize our results as identifying genes for education,” said corresponding author Daniel Benjamin, an associate professor at the Center for Economic and Social Research at the University of Southern California.
Of course, having a low polygenic score doesn’t mean that a person won’t achieve a high level of education or is ‘handicapped’ in some way. Socioeconomic status, personality (i.e. ambition), family — these are all important factors that may be far more important than genes in predicting educational attainment. In other words, it’s a matter of both nature and nurture.
The study is still important, nevertheless, as it helps scientists zoom-in on the contribution of the “nature” part. In doing so, the study helps paint a clearer picture of the complex interplay between genetics and the environment in shaping a person’s level of education.
“The most exciting part of this study is the polygenic score. Its level of predictive power for a behavioral outcome is truly remarkable,” said Wedow.