Was the University of Bristol your genetic destiny?

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By Vilhelmiina Haavisto, Deputy Science Editor

New research from King’s College London reveals links between achievement at university and genetics, but can it really be that all that simple?

Research throughout the past few decades have shown that genetics play a role in achievement in primary and secondary school, as well as post-16 education. However, associations between genetics and university success is not so well-documented. Success at university has been linked repeatedly to better earning, health, and general wellbeing in later life. Now, a paper published in Scientific Reports last week suggests that how people perform at university could also be partially determined by their genetics.

... institutions that individuals choose to apply to – and are accepted into – could be linked to their genotype.

The premise of the study was that young adults often choose academic environments based on their natural abilities and aptitudes, which have been shown to be influenced, at least in part, by genes. Therefore, the institutions that individuals choose to apply to – and are accepted into – could be linked to their genotype. In short, the study set out to determine the heritability (variation of any trait due to genetics, rather than environmental factors) of university achievement.

The team used both genetic and quantitative data from 3,000 pairs of twins from a large, long-term UK study, as well as a 3,000-person ‘representative’ sample. Both identical and non-identical twins were included in the study, as they share different proportions of their genes; identical twins share 100% of their genes, while non-identical twins only share 50% on average, like any other biological siblings.

person writing on brown wooden table near white ceramic mug
Photo by Green Chameleon / Unsplash

The findings suggest that there is considerable heritability of university achievement in twins, measured in ways such as university quality and the grade achieved by the end of the degree. These factors were 57% and 46% determined by genetics, respectively, meaning that if one twin achieved highly, the other was more likely to achieve highly as well. The rest of the observed variation is mostly due to “individual-specific” environmental effects, such as friendships and social habits. Meanwhile, “shared” environmental factors, including family life, seemed to have less of an impact on achievement in both identical and non-identical twins. However, the heritabilities of various indicators of achievement were stronger in identical twins, which further suggests a genetic influence.

However, we are still a long way from being able to predict an individual’s future achievements in higher education based on genetics alone. For one, league tables, such as that produced by the Complete University Guide, were used to quantify university quality, one of the measures of achievement used in the study. However, league tables do not account for nearly everything that might attract an individual to any particular university, nor are they a uniformly accurate measure of prestige across disciplines. Furthermore, just 0.7% of the differences in university achievement, and 2% of those in university quality, of the ‘reference’ sample could be explained by genetics alone, according to the study. This is a far cry from the roughly 50% heritability found in twins – the gap is known as the “missing heritability”, and suggests that the importance of genetics might have been overestimated, or that there is more complex interplay between ‘background’ genes.

people passing gray building
Photo by Andrés Gerlotti / Unsplash

The team also found that the twins’ shared environment influenced nearly 40% of the variance in choosing whether or not to even go to university in the first place. Indeed, there is growing debate over whether going to university is the only way to achieve success in later life. What’s more, even the most ‘genetically brilliant’ individuals can let their nerves get the better of them at interviews, or fail to impress admissions officers with their personal statements. There are also brilliant people who go on to do great things who do not achieve highly in academic environments, or choose not to go to university at all.

While such studies and their implications are interesting to consider, it does not mean we should take them at face value. University achievement is down to an incredibly large mix of factors, from socio-economic status to mental health to revision skills, to name just a few. Genes are just one such factor, with the key difference that we have little to no control over them. It might, therefore, be worth focusing on the factors contributing to our success that we can have an effect on, as we each strive to achieve our personal goals at university and beyond.

Featured image: Unsplash / Vasily Koloda


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