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Nature or nurture? It may depend on where you live

12 June 2012

The extent to which our development is affected by nature or nurture - our genetic make-up or our environment - may differ depending on where we live, according to research funded by the Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust.

In a study published today in the journal 'Molecular Psychiatry', researchers from the Twins Early Development Study at King's College London's Institute of Psychiatry studied data from more than 6700 families relating to 45 childhood characteristics, from IQ and hyperactivity to height and weight. They found that genetic and environmental contributions to these characteristics vary geographically in the UK and have published their results online as a series of nature-nurture maps.

Our development, health and behaviour are determined by complex interactions between our genetic make-up and the environment in which we live. For example, we may carry genes that increase our risk of developing type 2 diabetes, but if we eat a healthy diet and get sufficient exercise, we may not develop the disease. Similarly, someone may carry genes that reduce his or her risk of developing lung cancer, but heavy smoking may still lead to the disease.

The UK-based Twins Early Development Study follows more than 13 000 pairs of twins, both identical and non-identical, born between 1994 and 1996. When the twins were age 12, the researchers carried out a broad survey to assess a wide range of cognitive abilities, behavioural (and other) traits, environments and academic achievement in 6759 twin pairs. The researchers then designed an analysis that reveals the UK's genetic and environmental hotspots, something which had never been done before.

"These days we're used to the idea that it's not a question of nature or nurture; everything, including our behaviour, is a little of both," explains Dr Oliver Davis, a Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellow at King's College London's Institute of Psychiatry. "But when we saw the maps, the first thing that struck us was how much the balance of genes and environments can vary from region to region."

"Take a trait like classroom behaviour problems. From our maps we can tell that in most of the UK around 60 per cent of the difference between people is explained by genes. However, in the South East genes aren't as important: they explain less than half of the variation. For classroom behaviour, London is an 'environmental hotspot'."

The maps give the researchers a global overview of how the environment interacts with our genomes, without homing in on particular genes or environments. However, the patterns have given them important clues about which environments to explore in more detail.

"The nature-nurture maps help us to spot patterns in the complex data and to try to work out what's causing these patterns," says Dr Davis. "For our classroom behaviour example, we realised that one thing that varies more in London is household income. When we compare maps of income inequality to our nature-nurture map for classroom behaviour, we find income inequality may account for some of the pattern.

"Of course, this is just one example. There are any number of environments that vary geographically in the UK, from social environments like healthcare or education provision to physical environments like altitude, the weather or pollution. Our approach is all about tracking down those environments that you wouldn't necessarily think of at first."

It may be relatively easy to explain environmental hotspots, but what about the genetic hotspots that appear on the maps: do people's genomes vary more in those regions? The researchers believe this is not the case; rather, genetic hotspots are areas where the environment exposes the effects of genetic variation.

For example, researchers searching for gene variants that increase the risk of hay fever may study populations from two regions. In the first region people live among fields of wind-pollinated crops, whereas the second region is miles away from those fields. In this second region, where no one is exposed to pollen, no one develops hay fever; hence any genetic differences between people living in this region would be invisible.

By contrast, in the first region, where people live among the fields of crops, they will all be exposed to pollen and differences between the people with a genetic susceptibility to hay fever and the people without will stand out. That would make the region a genetic hotspot for hay fever.

"The message that these maps really drive home is that your genes aren't your destiny. There are plenty of things that can affect how your particular human genome expresses itself, and one of those things is where you grow up," says Dr Davis.

Image: Identical twin babies. Credit: Anthea Sieveking, Wellcome Images.

Contact

Craig Brierley
Media Relations Manager
The Wellcome Trust
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+44 (0)20 7611 7329
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c.brierley@wellcome.ac.uk

Notes for editors

Davis OSP et al. Visual analysis of geocoded twin data puts nature and nurture on the map. Molecular Psychiatry 2012 (epub ahead of print).

To find out the genetic and environmental hotspots in your area, explore Dr Oliver Davis’s interactive ‘nature-nurture map of Britain’.

About the Wellcome Trust
The Wellcome Trust is a global charitable foundation dedicated to achieving extraordinary improvements in human and animal health. It supports the brightest minds in biomedical research and the medical humanities. The Trust's breadth of support includes public engagement, education and the application of research to improve health. It is independent of both political and commercial interests.

About the Medical Research Council
For almost 100 years, the Medical Research Council has improved the health of people in the UK and around the world by supporting the highest quality science. The MRC invests in world-class scientists. It has produced 29 Nobel Prize winners and sustains a flourishing environment for internationally recognised research. The MRC focuses on making an impact and provides the financial muscle and scientific expertise behind medical breakthroughs, including one of the first antibiotics penicillin, the structure of DNA and the lethal link between smoking and cancer. Today MRC funded scientists tackle research into the major health challenges of the 21st century.

About King's College London
King’s College London is one of the top 30 universities in the world (2011/12 QS international world rankings), and was the 'The Sunday Times' University of the Year 2010/11, and the fourth oldest in England. A research-led university based in the heart of London, King's has nearly 23,500 students (of whom more than 9,000 are graduate students) from nearly 140 countries, and some 6,000 employees. King's is in the second phase of a £1 billion redevelopment programme which is transforming its estate.

King's has an outstanding reputation for providing world-class teaching and cutting-edge research. In the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise for British universities, 23 departments were ranked in the top quartile of British universities; over half of our academic staff work in departments that are in the top 10 per cent in the UK in their field and can thus be classed as world leading. The College is in the top seven UK universities for research earnings and has an overall annual income of nearly £525 million (year ending 31 July 2011).

King's College London and Guy's and St Thomas', King's College Hospital and South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trusts are part of King's Health Partners. King's Health Partners Academic Health Sciences Centre (AHSC) is a pioneering global collaboration between one of the world's leading research-led universities and three of London's most successful NHS Foundation Trusts, including leading teaching hospitals and comprehensive mental health services.

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