Study: Researchers Identify Hundreds of Gene Variants That Contribute to Height

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If you’re cursing Mom and Dad’s genes for making you too short (or too tall), you’d probably be justified. Height is clearly determined in large part by genes. Now an international group of researchers has identified a large collection of common gene variants that may be associated with individual stature.

The scientific collaboration, which included researchers at more than 200 institutions around the world, is fittingly known as the GIANT Consortium (for Genetic Investigation of ANthropometric Traits). Scientists used genome-wide association studies, which are designed to scan millions of sites on large numbers of genomes to identify areas of common variants that may be associated with a particular characteristic or disease. (More on A Stem Cell Breakthrough May Ease the Way to Human Treatments)

GIANT scientists crunched genetic data on 180,000 people from the U.S., Canada, Europe and Australia and found 180 different locations in the genome that were linked with variations in people’s height. These gene variants tended generally to cluster around other genes that have already been associated with skeletal growth, but a few were in areas of the genome that surprised scientists, because they have no known relation to height. Those areas could become new targets for studying the biology of height.

Although the new study, published by Nature Genetics, is the largest of its kind, it’s important to note that the newly identified variants account for only about 10% of the variation in people’s height. It is a common criticism of genome-wide association studies that while they are good at pinpointing areas of relevant gene variants, these variants typically contribute a tiny fraction of the risk or probability of a certain characteristic.

“Genome-wide association studies are very powerful tools, but even so, we are still some way short of understanding the full details of how differences in our genomes influence common human traits such as height,” said Timothy Frayling of the University of Exeter (UK) and a co-senior author of the study in a statement. “Complex traits such as height are proving even more complex than we had first thought. We will need even more powerful tools and different approaches if we are to understand fully the differences between individuals.” (More on Spend Too Much For Those Shoes? Blame Your Genes)

Generational differences in height (i.e., teenagers who tower over their grandparents), especially over the last century, can be attributed to better diet, health care and the eradication of many infectious diseases, which can stunt growth in childhood. But it will take much more research to figure out which combination of a person’s genes, how they affect biology and how they are influenced by environment to understand the genetics of height.

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