A matter of inheritance

Image courtesy of 'Digital Dreams' / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of ‘Digital Dreams’ / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The age-old ‘nature-nurture’ debate revolves around understanding to what extent various traits within a population are determined by biological or environmental factors. In this context ‘traits’ can include not only aspects of personality, but also physical differences (e.g. eye colour) and differences in the vulnerability to disease. Investigating the nature-nurture question is important because it can help us appreciate the extent to which biological and social interventions can affect things like disease vulnerabilities, and other traits that significantly affect life outcomes (e.g. intelligence). The ‘nurture’ part of this topic can be dealt with to some extent by research in disciplines such as Sociology and Psychology. In contrast genetic research is crucial to understanding the ‘nature’ part of the equation. Genetics also has relevance for the ‘nurture’ part of the debate because environmental factors such as stress and nutrition affect how genes perform their function (gene expression). Indeed genetic and environmental factors can interact in more complex ways; certain genetic traits can alter the probability of an organism experiencing certain environmental factors. For example a genetic trait towards a ‘sweet tooth’ is likely to increase the chances of the organism experiencing a high-sugar diet!

Given the importance of genetic information to understanding how organisms differ, I would argue that a basic knowledge of Genetics is essential for anyone interested in ‘life sciences’. This is true whether your interest is largely medical, psychological or social.  Unfortunately if, like me, you skipped A-Level Biology for something more exciting (or A-Level Physics in my case!) you might Genetics at bit of mystery.

Some basic genetics

Genetic information is encoded in DNA (Deoxyribonucleic acid). Sections of DNA that perform specific, separable functions are called Genes. Genes are the units of genetic information that can be inherited from generation to generation. Most Genes are arranged on long stretches of DNA called chromosomes, although a small proportion of genes are transmitted via cell mitochondria instead. Most organisms inherit 2 sets of chromosomes, one from each parent. Different genes perform different functions, mostly involving the creation of particular chemicals, often proteins, which influence how the organism develops.  All cells in the body contain the DNA for all genes, however only a subset of genes will be ‘expressed’ (i.e. perform their function) in each cell. This variation in gene expression between cells allows the fixed (albeit very large) number of genes to generate a vast number of different chemicals. This in turn allows organisms to vary widely in form while still sharing very similar genetic information (thus explaining how it can be that we share 98% of our DNA with monkeys, and 50% with bananas!).

The complete set of genetic information an individual has is called their ‘genotype’. The genotype varies between all individuals (apart from identical twins) and thus defines the biological differences between us. In contrast the ‘phenotype’ is the complete set of observable properties that can be assigned to an organism. Genetics tries to understand the relationship between the genotype and a particular individual phenotype (trait). For example how does the genetic information contained in our DNA (genotype) influence our eye colour (phenotype)? As already mentioned environmental factors play a significant role in altering the phenotype produced by a particular genotype. Explicitly the phenotype is the result of the expression of the genotype in a particular environment.


Roughly speaking, heritability is the influence that a person’s genetic inheritance has on their phenotype. More officially it is the proportion of the total variance in a trait within a population that can be attributable to genetic effects. It tells you how much of the variation between individuals can be attributed to genetic differences. Note that this is not the same as saying that 60% of an individual’s trait is determined by genetic information. In narrow-sense heritability (the most common form used), what counts as ‘genetic effects’ is only that which is directly determined from the genetic information past on by the parents. This ignores variations caused by the interaction between different genes, and between genes and the environment. This is the most popular usage of heritability in science because it is far more predictive of breeding outcomes, and therefore tells us more about nature part of the ‘nature-nurture’ question, than the alternative (broad-sense) conceptualisation of heritability.

Uses and abuses

Genetic research can provide crucial information in the fight against certain diseases. Identifying genes that are predictive of various illnesses allow us to identify individuals who are vulnerable to a disease. This then allows preventive measures to be implemented to counter the possible appearance of the disease. Furthermore once the genes that contribute to a disease are known, knowledge as to how those genes express will help reveal the cellular mechanisms behind the disease. This improves our understanding of how the disease progresses and operates, and therefore helps with identifying treatment opportunities. In reality of course Genetics is rarely this simple. Many conditions that have a genetic basis (i.e. that show a significant level of heritability) appear to be influenced by mutations within a large number of different genes. Indeed in many cases, especially with psychiatric disorders, it may be that conditions we treat as one unitary disorder are in fact a multitude of different genetic disorders that have very similar phenotypes. Nevertheless, despite these problems genetic research is helping to uncover the biological basis of many illnesses.

One problem with Genetics, and heritability in particular, is that of interpretation. There is often a mistaken belief that a high level of heritability signifies that environmental factors have little or no effect on a trait. This misunderstanding springs from an ignorance of the fact that estimates of heritability comes from within a particular population, in a particular environment. If you change the environment (or indeed the population) then the heritability level will change. This is because gene expression is affected by environmental factors and so the influence of genetic information on a trait will always be dependent to some extent on the environment. As an example a recent study showing that intelligence was highly heritable (1) lead to some right-wing commentators using it as ‘proof’ of the intellectual inferiority of certain populations, because of their lower scores on IQ tests. Such an interpretation is then used to argue that policies relating to equal treatment of people are flawed, because some people are ‘naturally’ better. Apart from the debatable logic of the argument itself, the actual interpretation of the genetic finding is flawed because a high heritability of IQ does not suggest that environmental differences have no effect on IQ scores. To illustrate this point consider that the study in question estimated heritability in an exclusive Caucasian sample from countries with universal access to education. If you expanded the sample to include those who did not have access to education it would most likely reduce the estimate of heritability, as you would have increased the influence of environmental factors within the population being studied! Ironically therefore you could argue that only by treating everyone equally would you be able to determine those who are truly stronger on a particular trait! Independent of what your views on equality are, the most important lesson as regards genetics is that you cannot use estimates of heritability, however high, to suggest that differences in the environment have no effect on trait outcomes.



(1) Davies, G. et al (2011) Genome-wide association studies establish that human intelligence is highly heritable and polygenic. Molecular Psychiatry 16, 996-1005. http://www.nature.com/mp/journal/v16/n10/full/mp201185a.html

Although not directly cited, I found the following information useful when creating the post (and when trying to get my head around Genetics!).

Quantitative Genetics: measuring heritability. In Genetics and Human Behaviour: the ethical context. Nuffield Council on Bioethics. 2002.  http://www.nuffieldbioethics.org/sites/default/files/files/Genetics%20and%20behaviour%20Chapter%204%20-%20Quantitative%20genetics.pdf

Visscher, P.M., Hill, W.G. & Wray, N.R. (2008) Heritability in the genomics era – concepts and misconceptions. Nature Reviews Genetics, 9 255-266. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18319743

Bargmann, C.I. & Gilliam, T.C. (2012) Genes & Behaviour (Kandel, E.R. et al (Eds)). In Principles of Neural Science (Fifth Edition). McGraw-Hill.

Rob Hoskin

Received a PhD from the Neuroscience Department of Sheffield University. Views expressed in blog posts do not necessarily represent the views of the Science Brainwaves organisation. https://twitter.com/Hoskin_R

3 thoughts to “A matter of inheritance”

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