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22 August 2014 - The Conversation- Why nurture is just as important as nature for understanding genetics

Claire Haworth

One of the most striking findings from genetics research is that the influence of genes isn’t fixed.

Even though our DNA sequence remains the same, the impact our genes have on us can alter with age and with the different environments we experience. Epigenetics, where the environment can change the expression of a gene without changing DNA, is only a small part of a whole field of science looking at changes in heritability due to interactions between genes and environment.

For example, we know that the importance of genetic influences for body weight increases as we get older. Genetic variation accounts for 48% of the differences between people in early childhood but by adolescence this rises to 78%. These estimated figures, from a study of thousands of twins in the Twins Early Development Study, have now been confirmed using analyses of DNA.

Identifying which genes influence disease is important, but it’s just the first step. As we invest more in genetic research, we need to keep context in mind too. We should invest just as heavily in new methods for tracking and analysing behaviour, environments and health outcomes to the same degree of detail as we are now studying DNA.