Research reveals how genetics interact with social forces and the environment

Humans are a diverse species. Every person on Earth has enough DNA to reach Pluto three times. Studying how all this genetic material works, and in particular how genes influence human behavior, is a very complex endeavor, aided by the introduction of large genetic data banks and powerful data science analytical tools to analyze this data.

Robbie Wedow, assistant professor of sociology and data science in Purdue’s College of Liberal Arts, assistant professor of medicine and molecular genetics at Indiana University School of Medicine, and inaugural faculty member at Purdue’s AnalytiXIN/16 Tech in Indianapolis, maps these gene kilometers to gain insight into how genetics interacts with social forces and environment. He used genetic databases to study how single-nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs, affect a complex set of traits including sexual behavior, educational attainment, socioeconomic status, health behaviors, and more. “We know that social forces such as socioeconomic status play a role in influencing a person’s life and life outcomes,” Vedow said. “But we also know that every behavior has a genetic component. We don’t yet understand how these biological forces interact with the environment, and what these kinds of interactions might mean for social science—and what we think we know about social science research so far. We use well-powered genetic data to do more precise and replicable social science and explore what might be possible at the intersection of genetic and behavioral science.”

The true extent of genetics became clear when scientists sequenced the first human genome in 2003. Initially, geneticists believed that discovering the genes for each trait was as simple as looking in the appropriate place. However, DNA bases and genes are not just the keys of a grand piano on which human lives are performed like masterpieces. Instead, DNA acts more like a pipe organ, with stops, switches, and pedals that can change the pitch of notes, muffle them, or increase their volume. Environment, diet, pollution, life experiences, and other factors can influence when and how genes matter for particular outcomes, as well as whether parts of the genome matter at all. There is no single gene responsible for behavioral consequences. Biology does not determine destiny: although it determines the musical score, musicians are free to improvise and interpret how they perform.

Vedow emphasizes that the idea is not that these genes control a person’s life or destiny. Each SNP actually has very little effect on the overall outcome, such as educational attainment. No “Gattaca”-level reading of a person’s fate from their genes—90s dystopian-movie style—is on the horizon. Rather, the ability to elucidate the genetics of certain behaviors can help scientists understand the nuances of human behavior. “People think that genetics is always about biology, but in the case of sociogenomics it’s more about taking advantage of this new, powerful data to better understand the results themselves or to allow researchers to do more precise social science and behavioral studies,” Vedov said. “The social sciences have recently struggled with replicating studies. Often the sample size is too small to make firm estimates and certainty. This is where the potential to use these huge genetic data banks in the social sciences comes in. They help us get much clearer information. , take a closer look to what is actually happening.”

Genetic analysis is only the first step. An American geneticist in the early 1800s was able to correlate genetics with educational attainment and concluded that anyone with two X chromosomes had less education. This is not because chromosomes have anything to do with education at all. Rather, the correlation reflected the social and gender biases present in the culture at the time. Similar insights are hidden in Vedov’s research. “Sociogenomics is not necessarily about biology as some might think,” Vedow said. “When someone studies the genetics of cancer, they study it because they want to figure out the biology of cancer; they want to figure out ways to better diagnose, track, and treat it. But sociogenomics researchers want to study genetics to do better social science. No one would ever study sociology, regardless of socioeconomic status and environment. We want genetics to be considered in the same way.”

In a study in the journal Nature Human Behavior, volume 7 no. 7 Vedow, his co-author Andrea Gann of the University of Helsinki, and other co-authors looked at 109 survey questions from more than 300,000 people to examine the ways in which people’s genes correlated with whether they answered certain questions or left them blank on the surveys they answered UK Biobank. This may sound rather absurd, but it fills a gap that the field of sociology has struggled with for decades. “How do you know what you don’t know, or how could someone have answered a question if they chose not to?” Vedow said. “It turns out that the genetics of people who either answer or don’t answer a survey question overlaps with the genetics of other outcomes, such as education, income, or certain health behaviors.”

This means that scientists can use this kind of data to gain a better understanding of how people who choose not to answer questionnaires might also give similar answers to questions about health or social behavior. Geneticists can also use the results of this study to correct for bias in genetic studies of any behavioral, psychiatric, or medical outcome. “We cannot yet separate signal from noise or causally separate environmental effects from biological effects,” Vedow said. “We know that genetics correlates with certain outcomes, but we’re not at the level where we can say that any particular gene causes any particular outcome. The effect of each individual gene is small. It’s only in large data sets that we start to get a result. The statistical power to produce meaningful, reproducible results. We are using these exciting new data and tools to transform social science.” (ANI)

(This story has not been edited by Devdiscourse staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

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