The Frontal Cortex

Skeptical Genetics

How much can we learn about disease from studying genetics? A few months ago, Nature published an interesting article on the possible impossibility of ever finding the faulty genes behind many mental illnesses. Today, Nicholas Wade in the Times had an interesting article on the skeptical geneticist David Goldstein:

Goldstein says the effort to nail down the genetics of most common diseases is not working. “There is absolutely no question,” he said, “that for the whole hope of personalized medicine, the news has been just about as bleak as it could be.”

Of the HapMap and other techniques developed to make sense of the human genome, Dr. Goldstein said, “Technically, it was a tour de force.” But in his view, this prodigious labor has produced just a handful of genes that account for very little of the overall genetic risk.

“After doing comprehensive studies for common diseases, we can explain only a few percent of the genetic component of most of these traits,” he said. “For schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, we get almost nothing; for Type 2 diabetes, 20 variants, but they explain only 2 to 3 percent of familial clustering, and so on.”

The reason for this disappointing outcome, in his view, is that natural selection has been far more efficient than many researchers expected at screening out disease-causing variants.

The end result is that even diseases that look largely genetic in twin studies are caused by an insanely complex confluence of factors, with hundreds of genes contributing to the disorder. (I was talking to a scientist a few weeks ago who said he wouldn’t be surprised if a thousand different genes were involved in triggering the range of behaviors typically categorized as “schizophrenia.”) But wait: it gets worse. The brain is a plastic machine, constantly altering its patterns of gene expression in response to environmental changes. As a result, the static texts of Nature are constantly being modified by Nurture. Here is how I summarize these epigenetic effects in my book:

Science has discovered that, like any work of literature, our genome is a text in need of commentary, for what George Eliot said of poetry is also true of our DNA: “all meanings depend on the key of interpretation.” What makes us human, and what makes each of us our own human, is not simply the genes we have buried in our base pairs, but how our cells, in dialogue with our environment, feedback onto our DNA, changing the way we read ourselves. Life is a dialectic. For example, the code sequence GTAAGT can either be translated as instructions for the amino acids valine and serine; or it can be read as a “spacer”, a genetic pause that keeps other protein parts an appropriate distance from each other; or it can be read as a signal to cut the transcript. Our DNA is defined by its multiplicity of possible meanings; it is a code that requires context.

Update: Razib has much more, including a smart discussion on Goldstein’s comment on natural selection and intelligence towards the end of the article.


  1. #1 Joel
    September 17, 2008

    I’m not sure about “thousands of genes” contributing to single disorders, since the human genome only contains about 20,000. Most of those genes are essential for survival. However, a *single* gene can have a multitude of different polymorphisms that have widely variable effects on the function of the proteins they encode.

  2. #2 markie
    September 17, 2008

    Excellent news, really…more evidence that indicates our Gene is not the Holy Grail; that foundationalism and fundamentalism continue to fall short as M.O. This is the way! No, this over here – this is the way! Not that we haven’t learned anything. We have plenty of cues from molecular genetics, developmental biology and embyology alone, that genocentric models, with the token invocation of Environment, are incomplete in their attempts to explain phenotypic expression, let alone account for bits of human behavior/cognition/disorder. As Anastasi put it in 1958! in response to Nature v Nurture – not Which, but How? And how external to the gene is this Environment, really? What of light, temperature, magnetic fields, gravity and all that juicy stuff that is space-time? And one never steps into the same milieu twice. C’mon people !!

  3. #3 Jonah
    September 17, 2008

    I know, I have no idea if a 1000 genes is remotely plausible: it sounded very high to me. But keep in mind that recent studies (like the allen brain map) have found that 80 percent of all human genes are expressed in the brain. Also, this scientist was arguing that what we call schizophrenia is actually a number of different disorders, each of which might be caused by hundreds of different genes, so it wasn’t as if he was saying that a 1000 genes were behind a single disease.

  4. #4 razib
    September 17, 2008

    more intelligible: x number of genes effect variation of trait value from y to z.

  5. #5 teknopartz
    September 18, 2008

    What’s in between the ‘genes’ counts too… even if we don’t understand what it does and call it ‘junk’. Sometimes junk matters.

  6. #6 razib
    September 18, 2008

    “What’s in between the ‘genes’ counts too… even if we don’t understand what it does and call it ‘junk’. Sometimes junk matters.”

    then: a particular portion of the variation of endogenous informational substrate effects a particular portion of the exogenous phenotypic variation. ?

  7. #7 timothy moriarty
    September 18, 2008

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