Tag Archive for 'heritability'

The genome hasn’t failed

On Monday, the Guardian published an article by plant geneticist Jonathan Latham entitled “The failure of the genome”. Ironically given this is an article criticising allegedly exaggerated claims made about the power of the human genome, Latham does not spare us his own hyperbole:

Among all the genetic findings for common illnesses, such as heart disease, cancer and mental illnesses, only a handful are of genuine significance for human health. Faulty genes rarely cause, or even mildly predispose us, to disease, and as a consequence the science of human genetics is in deep crisis.

[...] The failure to find meaningful inherited genetic predispositions is likely to become the most profound crisis that science has faced. [emphasis added]

The claim that human genetics is in crisis is not novel. Latham made an extended version of this argument in a blog post at the Bioscience Resource Project in December last year, which Daniel critiqued at length at the time, and which contained a schoolboy statistical error corrected by Luke. And Latham is by no means the only genome-basher out there: the 10 year anniversary of the sequencing of the human genome triggered a spate of “genome fail” pieces (see Nicholas Wade, Andrew Pollack, Matt Ridley, and a particularly horrendous example from Oliver James, for instance).

We suspect for most of our readers Latham’s rather hysterical critique will fall on deaf ears, but it is part of a bizarre and disturbing trend that needs to be publicly countered. Here are several of the places where Latham’s screed gets it patently wrong:

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Estimating heritability using twins

Last week, a post went up on the Bioscience Resource Project blog entited The Great DNA Data Deficit. This is another in a long string of “Death of GWAS” posts that have appeared around the last year. The authors claim that because GWAS has failed to identify many “major disease genes”, i.e. high frequency variants with large effect on disease, it was therefore not worthwhile; this is all old stuff, that I have discussed elsewhere (see also my “Standard GWAS Disclaimer” below). In this case, the authors argue that the genetic contribution to complex disease has been massively overestimated, and in fact genetics does not play as large a part in disease as we believe.

The one particularly new thing about this article is that they actually look at the foundation for beliefs about missing heritability; the twin studies of identical and non-identical twins from which we get our estimates of the heritability of disease. I approve of this: I think all those who are interested in the genetics of disease should be fluent in the methodology of twin studies. However, in this case, the authors come to the rather odd conclusion that heritability measures are largely useless, based on a small statistical misunderstanding of how such studies are done.

I thought I would use this opportunity to explain, in relative detail, where we get our estimates of heritability from, why they are generally well-measured and robust, and real issues need to be considered when interpreting twin study results. This post is going to contain a little bit of maths, but don’t worry if it scares you a little, you only really need to get the gist.
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