A worldwide consortium of medical researchers and social scientists has found that tiny differences across person’s genetic sequences are associated with educational level. The study was conducted by the Social Science Genetic Association Consortium, under the leadership of researchers at Erasmus School of Economics and Erasmus MC.
“The unique feature of our study is that we looked at a sample of unprecedented size in social science genetics research. Overall, we studied the genetic information of more than 125,000 people, looking specifically at a type of genetic variation called single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs),” Philipp Koellinger (Associate Professor of Erasmus School of Economics) explained.
A SNP is one of the most common genetic differences among people and involves the replacement of a single DNA base pair with another.
“We investigated whether any of these small genetic differences across people were associated with the number of years of schooling and also whether or not a person had a college degree,” Koellinger said.
The study identified a number of SNPs that are robustly associated with educational attainment. No individual SNP accounted for more than 0.02% of the variation in years of schooling. Yet, all SNPs combined could eventually explain up to 20% of variation if even larger samples would be available for analyses.
“Educational attainment, like most human behaviour, is influenced both by environmental and genetic factors. Our study is a first step to identify some of these genetic factors,” Koellinger explains. “The genetic associations we discovered are only a very small piece of a very large puzzle. But our findings do have a number of significant implications.
“Our study shows that the effects of every single genetic variant on educational attainment are much smaller than many scientists expected. But finding these genetic variants is still important because it may lead to insights into biological pathways underlying human behaviour.
“In the future, a better understanding of these biological pathways may also help us to gain new insights into how the environment and genes together influence socio-economic and medical outcomes.”
Professor Albert Hofman from the Erasmus MC elaborates that “the results of this study are also important for medical research. For example, we want to understand why some people cognitively age better than others, and why some people are genetically more susceptible to dementia. By investigating related behavioural outcomes such as educational attainment in huge samples, we can discover relevant biological mechanisms that we would have missed otherwise.”
Professor Roy Thurik (Erasmus School of Economics) adds that “Erasmus University Rotterdam is an international leader in this new, inter-disciplinary research field of genoeconomics. It combines the great expertise of our Medical Centre and Erasmus School of Economics. We learn a lot from each other. And there will be more. We are in the process of setting up the Erasmus Centre for Biology and Behavior”.