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Genetics: Socioeconomic migration is linked to genetic differences in Great Britain

Nature Human Behaviour

October 22, 2019

Genetic variation associated with a wide range of traits, such as physical and mental health, personality and educational attainment, is clustered by region in Great Britain, reports a paper published in Nature Human Behaviour. This is probably due to recent socioeconomically driven migration rather than ancestral differences, the study suggests.

Human DNA is known to reflect ancestral differences in Great Britain and has been maintained over centuries as people traditionally remained in the areas they were born with little movement. However, how the DNA makeup has been affected by internal migration events such as the Industrial revolution and later migration events is not well understood.

Abdel Abdellaoui and colleagues calculated polygenic scores - estimates of a person’s genetic predisposition for certain characteristics - for more than 450,000 participants of European descent from the UK Biobank using about 1.2 million genetic variants. Of 33 genetic traits analysed, 21 displayed distinct geographic clustering. They found that participants have polygenic scores more similar to their neighbours’ polygenic scores than to those of participants who live farther away after controlling for older genetic ancestry. This pattern was especially strong for scores regarding educational attainment. Genetic variants associated with lower educational attainment are more common in areas that face economic challenges, such as coal mining regions. The authors suggest that participants seem more likely to leave poorer regions if they have a higher genetic predisposition for educational attainment.

The authors further observe that selective migration is likely to be associated with regional clustering not only of genetic variants but also of social and economic needs, which in turn may coincide with collective attitudes, such as voting preferences. For example, regional differences in election results are associated both with regional differences in socioeconomic status and with genetic variants that are associated with educational attainment.

The authors conclude that social stratification is likely to affect the geographic arrangements of genetic variation in Great Britain, which has important implications for policies relating to health and inequality, as well as further research into the relationship between genes and behavioural outcomes.

doi: 10.1038/s41562-019-0757-5

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