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Comparison of adopted and non-adopted individuals reveals gene-environment interplay for education in the UK Biobank

By Rosa Cheesman, Avina Hunjan, Jonathan R. I. Coleman, Yasmin I Ahmadzadeh, Robert Plomin, Tom A McAdams, Thalia C. Eley, Gerome Breen

Posted 18 Jul 2019
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/707695

Individual-level polygenic scores can now explain ~10% of the variation in number of years of completed education. However, associations between polygenic scores and education capture not only genetic propensity but information about the environment that individuals are exposed to. This is because individuals passively inherit effects of parental genotypes, since their parents typically also provide the rearing environment. In other words, the strong correlation between offspring and parent genotypes results in an association between the offspring genotypes and the rearing environment. This is termed passive gene-environment correlation. We present an approach to test for the extent of passive gene-environment correlation for education without requiring intergenerational data. Specifically, we use information from 6311 individuals in the UK Biobank who were adopted in childhood to compare genetic influence on education between adoptees and non-adopted individuals. Adoptees' rearing environments are less correlated with their genotypes, because they do not share genes with their adoptive parents. We find that polygenic scores are twice as predictive of years of education in non-adopted individuals compared to adoptees (R2= 0.074 vs 0.037, difference test p= 8.23 x 10-24). We provide another kind of evidence for the influence of parental behaviour on offspring education: individuals in the lowest decile of education polygenic score attain significantly more education if they are adopted, possibly due to educationally supportive adoptive environments. Overall, these results suggest that genetic influences on education are mediated via the home environment. As such, polygenic prediction of educational attainment represents gene-environment correlations just as much as it represents direct genetic effects.

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