London Daily

Focus on the big picture.
Wednesday, Feb 21, 2024

How genetics determine our life choices

How genetics determine our life choices

How much of our behaviour is pre-determined by our underlying biology?

In the subterranean depths of a granite building on the outskirts of Iceland's capital, Reykjavík, a robot is slowly and methodically shuffling the chilled blood of tens of thousands of people from all over the world.

Down in this concrete chamber, a well-honed process is taking place. DNA is extracted from the samples and then fed into sequencing machines which slowly piece together the unique lines of chemical bases which form the basis of each individual's identity. Later on, artificial intelligence algorithms will connect this genetic code or genome with detailed information held in biobanks about their life – their diet, personality, relationship choices, hobbies, the diseases to which they ultimately succumbed - and search for links which scientists might deem statistically significant.

This particular concrete chamber is owned by an Icelandic company called deCODE genetics, which has sequenced more whole genomes – over 400,000 and counting – than any other institution in the world. Through this process it has made major contributions to understanding our inherited risk of Alzheimer's, schizophrenia, coronary artery disease, various forms of cancer, and many other chronic illnesses.

But it has also inspired others to use the same process to delve deep into the human psyche, and find connections between the genome and our personalities, food preferences, and even ability to maintain relationships.

These kinds of studies are starting to touch on something more intimate than simply the search for new medicines, instead revealing new connections between our genetic code and our life choices. For many scientists it has begun to raise the question, to what extent is our behaviour the product of our own volition, and how much is simply pre-determined by our underlying biology?

"When you look at us as a species, we have come into existence on the basis of information that lives in our genome, and then the interaction of that with the environment," says Kári Stefánsson, an Icelandic scientist who founded deCODE genetics in 1996, with the initial aim of using Iceland's unique genetic landscape to understand more about common diseases. The country has a small population that has been relatively isolated over the centuries, meaning that there is much less genetic variation than in other nations. This in turn means that there is less background noise to complicate matters, making it easier for scientists to identify meaningful gene variants.

Part neurologist, part philosopher, the 73-year-old Stefánsson has become ever more convinced that the complex cocktail of DNA we inherit from our parents, along with around 70 spontaneous genetic mutations which we acquire by chance, subconsciously dictates our behaviour to a far greater extent than we are aware.

We may not realise it, but it appears that many routine aspects of our daily lives might be partially driven by our genome. Subtle genetic tweaks in your taste receptors help to determine whether you prefer drinking coffee or tea. It turns out that coffee lovers are less sensitive to the bitterness of caffeine, while tea aficionados do not perceive other types of bitter chemicals quite so potently.

Genetics also play a role when it comes to our inclinations or aversions for all sorts of different activities. At a simplistic level, it governs both how much you enjoy exercising, and whether you prefer more solitary forms of physical activity such as running, or competing with others as part of team sports. But our DNA can also point us towards more specific leisure-time pursuits.

Fifteen years ago, a survey of 2,000 British adults first suggested that there might be such a thing as a hobby gene. Simply looking at a person's family tree and the favoured pastimes of their ancestors suggested a strong inclination towards certain types of activities. Participants in the survey were often surprised to discover that they actually came from a long line of amateur gardeners, stamp collectors, or cake makers.

In the following decade, many people around the world have referred to the study after finding that a parent or grandparent's favoured pastime suddenly held an inexplicable appeal in adulthood. In a Medium blog, Michael Woronko, an insurance worker from Ottawa, Canada wrote, "I had never shown an interest for gardening, even when my mom had dragged me along to her community garden as a child. I couldn't care less about hybrid tomatoes, about germinating peppers, and so forth, but when the opportunity presented itself (as an adult), something deep down inside of me sprang forward and I ran with it".

Large genomic sequencing studies are now starting to explain why. Stefánsson describes how deCODE's scientists have even found one particular gene variant which determines whether crossword puzzles will appeal to you. "We know that if you have it, you will like to solve crossword puzzles, but it has no impact on whether you're good at them or not," he laughs.

This also holds true when it comes to the complex matter of how our genes dictate the life paths that we follow.

From Boston to Shenzhen, various tech start-ups have spent years searching for so-called talent genes, genetic variants which might confer an innate natural strength or unique language abilities, enabling a person to be directed towards the areas where they have the most to offer.

But doing so is not quite as simple as it might seem. Geneticists at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany, have recently tried to draw connections between a gene called ROBO1 which controls grey matter development in a part of the brain involved in number representation, and a child's mathematical abilities. But so far it seems that with all talents, whether that is number crunching, musical ability, or athletic prowess, genetics is just a relatively small part of the equation.

Instead, as Stefánsson found with crosswords, it seems our genes influence our natural inclinations towards doing certain activities. What truly dictates whether we have any aptitude for them are factors such as whether we receive tutoring and other opportunities at an early age, and our own willingness to practice, improve and persist.

The latter points to where genetics might wield its weightiest influence over our life paths - our personality traits. According to Danielle Dick, a psychiatry professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey and author of the book The Child Code, most dimensions of personality such as how extroverted or introverted, conscientious, agreeable, impulsive, and perhaps even how creative we are, have some kind of genetic component.

"This reflects the fact that our genes influence the ways our brains form, which impacts how we think and interact with the world," says Dick. "Some people have brains that are more inclined to seek out exciting or novel experiences, more likely to take risks, or drawn to more immediate rewards."

There can be advantages to all of these characteristics. Entrepreneurs, CEOs, fighter pilots, and athletes who compete in extreme sports, all tend to be natural risk-takers. But having this genetic background can also come with certain costs. Risk-takers are more likely to develop addictions, while Stefánsson's work has shown that a proportion of the people with the genetics that would otherwise encourage creative thinking actually go on to develop schizophrenia. Naturally impulsive people might be better decision-makers and willing to seize opportunities that would otherwise pass them by, but they can also be vulnerable to developing gambling problems, dropping out of school or getting fired from a job.

Our genes influence the ways our brains form, which impacts how we think and interact with the world – Danielle Dick

A recent study co-authored by Dick used data from around 1.5 million individuals to identify gene variants linked to impulsivity. She found that impulsive people tended to be more likely to develop attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) as children, or participate in smoking and substance taking in adolescence and adulthood, before later developing associated conditions such as obesity and lung cancer.

"That said, it is equally clear that DNA is not destiny," says Dick. "Our genes influence our dispositions, which influence our natural tendencies, but it does not mean that people with them are always going to develop problems."

Kári-Stefánsson, founder of deCODE genetics, believes the DNA we inherit subconsciously dictates our behaviour much more than we realise


The environment we find ourselves in plays a huge role in determining whether we act on our genetic inclinations or not. Stefánsson says that people who have genetic variants in their brain which make them struggle with inhibition are going to be more likely to overeat if they work next to fast food outlets, and struggle to quit if they begin smoking. But at the same time, there is evidence that having a stable family life, stable romantic relationships and friendships, or even exercising regularly can help them live a productive life.

"Individuals at the highest risk are also the ones who benefit most from a healthy environment," says Cecilia Flores, a psychiatry professor at McGill University in Canada. "A positive environment can buffer genetic susceptibility, and even reverse it."

But this does not only help to explain the connection between personality and patterns of addictive behaviour. Social scientists are now finding that studying these kinds of gene-environment interactions helps to explain why some people are more suited to maintaining long-term relationships than others.

The genetics of love


Four years ago, sociologists at the Yale School of Public Health embarked on a study of 178 married couples, ranging from 37 to 90-years-old. Each partner was asked to answer a series of questions relating to their happiness and sense of security in the relationship, and provide a saliva sample which would be used to analyse certain genes.

Scientists have long known that genetics plays some kind of a role in determining our choices of friends, and even romantic partners. In both cases we tend to form attachments with people who have certain physical similarities to ourselves. "We tend to form social relationships with individuals who are more genetically similar to us," says Andrew Dewan, a genetic epidemiologist at Yale. "We can think of the genes controlling these traits as having some influence on who we are choosing to form friendships with."

It turns out that genes also play a significant in our ability to keep a stable, happy relationship going over the course of years and decades. Previous research has shown that the children of divorced parents are more likely to themselves get divorced while the Yale study investigated the role of a hormone called oxytocin which drives bonding, and makes partners feel closer to each other. It found that when at least one partner in a marriage had a certain gene variant which increases the activity of oxytocin and makes the mind more receptive to its benefits, that partner was less likely to display psychological symptoms known as anxious attachment, and the couple were happier.

Anxious attachment is a particular style of relationship insecurity that develops from past experiences with close family members and previous partners. It results in diminished self-worth, high rejection sensitivity, and approval-seeking behaviour. "This shows that inherited genetic variants can contribute to our happiness in relationships," says Dewan. "Our genetics does not solely dictate our ability to form long-term relationships, but is one contributing factor that may nudge us in one direction or another, either towards or away from them."

Our genetics govern both how much you enjoy exercising and whether you prefer more solitary forms of physical activity such as running


Across the spectrum of medicine and psychology, psychiatrists, child development specialists and obesity experts are now looking to use the growing amount of genetic information to shape public health policies, and provide people with practical advice.

Nicola Pirastu, a biostatistics expert at the Human Technopole research institute in Italy, has found that genetic variants in food preferences can shift our liking from fruit and vegetables to high calorie, fatty foods. Because so many of these variants are found in the brain, he thinks that obesity should increasingly be treated as a disease with medications rather than dietary interventions.

"Losing weight is super difficult," he says. "And it's not just about willpower. If you're always hungry, of course you want to eat. So drugs which act on this craving for food can certainly help people. Of course you can do it through diet as well, but maintaining a diet is kind of like a full-time job, and a lot of people are not able to do that."

With the cost of genetic sequencing continuing to fall, it is possible that this might be used in future to screen children or adolescents who are displaying signs of addictive behaviour. "My hope is that as there is greater public understanding that problems like addiction or child behaviour are often related to the luck of the draw when it comes to the genes one inherits, it will reduce stigma," says Dick. "By identifying individuals who are at risk earlier in development, we can put resources in place to help them reach their full potential."

Dick believes that if the individual and their family know that they are prone to addictive or risk-taking behaviour, it can help them avoid actively seeking out those environments. But she says that society has a role to play as well. "Many of us in the addiction field are particularly concerned about the new laws in the United States that are allowing easy access to cannabis and online gambling as we know that environments that promote increased availability and acceptance of these behaviours are associated with higher rates of problems," she says.

But we are still only at the beginning of understanding exactly how our genes dictate what we do, and the role they play in our choices. For the last two decades, Stefánsson and others have slowly unravelled many of these links, but there are still many basic questions which are yet to be answered.

"One of the big questions is, can you inherit a thought?" he says. "Is the way you think passed down from your mother and father? One of the problems with proving that is we don't have a good definition of a thought. Yet if you take our species, we could say that we are pretty much defined by our thoughts and emotions. But in 2023, we haven't even managed to define one of the attributes that define us."

Newsletter

Related Articles

London Daily
0:00
0:00
Close
New video
You Are So Beautiful
Tucker Carlson says Boris Johnson wants "a million dollars, in Bitcoin or cash, from Tucker Carlson to talk about Ukraine.
Postmodern Jukebox European Tour Version
Russia is rebuilding capacity to destabilize European countries, new UK report warns
An old French tune (by Georges Brassens) Pomplamoose ft. John Schroeder
EU Commission wants anti-drone defenses at Brussels HQ
Sattahip Motor Show 20
Von der Leyen’s 2nd-term pitch: More military might, less climate talk
SONATE AU CLAIR DE LUNE - Moonlight sonata
Global Law Enforcement Dismantles Lockbit Ransomware Operation
A kiss to build a dream on
Prince William Urges End to Gaza Conflict
Wonderful Tonight - Eric Clapton (Boyce Avenue acoustic cover)
UK court to hear Assange's final appeal against extradition to the US, where he faces charges related to his journalistic work—the publication of a classified video in 2010 that exposed US war crimes against humanity.
Mean Blues
About 50-60% kids either chose to be YouTuber or influencer
La Chansonnette
A viral video of Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce lying on a Canberra footpath is celebrated by his media mates.
Pattaya Addicts
European Countries React to Navalny's Death by Summoning Russian Diplomats
Franz Liszt - Liebestraum - Love Dream
Israel has gone ‘beyond self-defence’ in Gaza, says Labour’s Streeting
Dream a little dream of me
English farmers to be offered ‘largest ever’ grant scheme amid food security concerns
Unchained Melody sung like you've NEVER heard!
Cameron government knew Post Office ditched Horizon IT investigation
Dave Brubeck - Take Five
EU Calls for Immediate Ceasefire in Gaza Conflict
Édith Piaf - Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien (Sofie)
EU Vows To Hold Putin "Accountable" After Meeting Alexei Navalny's Wife
Rondo Alla Turca
EU Launches Probe Into TikTok Over Child Protection Under Digital Content Law
Kiss of fire
The EU Initiates Naval Mission to Defend Red Sea Trade Routes
Tom Jones - I´ll Never Fall In Love Again 1967, 1989, 2001
EU and UK Announce Joint Effort on Migration
Israel Cachao López - Guajira Clásica
Brazil's Lula Likens Gaza Operation to Holocaust, Israel Says "Red Line" Crossed
Edward Maya - Stereo Love (feat. Vika Jigulina) (Extended Mix)
Ministers Confirm Proposal to Prohibit Mobile Phone Usage in English Schools
Strauss - Radetzky March - Karajan
Microsoft-backed OpenAI valued at $80bn after company completes deal
La vie en rose
‘Alexei would want to tell Russia not to give up fighting’
The Temptations - My Girl (Smokey Robinson Tribute) 2006 Kennedy Cent
Rwandan Footballer's Dismissal Sparks Concerns Over UK Asylum Plan
Orlando Cachaito Lopez Redencion
Whisky Challenges China's Baijiu Market During New Year Celebrations
Edith Piaf - NON, JE NE REGRETTE RIEN
Avdiivka - Symbol Of Ukrainian Resistance Now In Control Of Russian Troops
RADETZKY MARCH-2008-Wien, New Year Concert
Putin Critic Alexei Navalny's "Killers" Refusing To Hand Over Body, Say Allies
Only you (And you alone)
"Historic Step": Zelensky Signs Security Pact With Germany
Strangers In The Night
"Historic Step": Zelensky Signs Security Pact With Germany
Charles Aznavour - La Boheme
20 Tech Giants Sign Effort To Fight AI Election Interference Across Globe
Summer time
Joe Biden Accuses Putin of Causing Navalny's Death
Sting and Stevie Wonder - Fragile (from Sting's 60th birthday concert)
Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny has died at the Arctic prison colony
Aux Champs Elysees
Tucker Carlson grocery shopping in Russia. This is so interesting.
Stand By Me - Ben E. King (Boyce Avenue acoustic cover)
Julian Assange's Wife Warns of His Death if Extradited to US
La Mer (Beyond the Sea) – Avalon Jazz Band
‘A lot higher than we expected’: Russian arms production worries Europe’s war planners
She
Greece Legalizes Same-Sex Marriage and Adoption Rights
Nathalie Song by Enzo Petrachi Stjepan Hauser Cello
Hungarian Foreign Minister: Europeans will lose Europe, the Union's policy must change drastically
Shape of My Heart - Sting (Boyce Avenue acoustic cover)
In Britain Homeowners are receiving CPO’s (Compulsory Purchase Orders) so their homes can be redistributed to migrants
Radiohead - Creep
Microsoft says it caught hackers from China, Russia and Iran using its AI tools
Quizás,Quizás,Quizás - Andrea Bocelli - Jennifer Lopez
Influencers Exploit X Platform for Profit Amidst Israel-Gaza Conflict
Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps - Multi-Couples
Former Dutch PM And Wife Die "Together Hand In Hand" Via Duo Euthanasia
Pentatonix Havana
Media Giant Paramount Global, Which Owns CBS News, To Cut 800 Jobs
Paula Cole - Autumn Leaves
US Rejects Putin's Ceasefire Offer in Ukraine
Oscar Benton Bensonhurst Blues
"History is Watching": Biden Encourages US House to Approve Ukrainian War Aid
OH NANANA vs ABUSADAMENTE
Wolf! Wolf!: Joe Biden Joins TikTok Despite Washington's Security Risk Warnings
Nina Simone - ”I Put A Spell On You”. Vezi aici cum cântă Jeremy Ragsd
A Londoner has been arrested for expressing his Christian beliefs.
NIGHTWISH - The Phantom Of The Opera
Chinese Women Favor AI Boyfriends Over Humans
Motorshow 2016 Tanjay Negros Oriental
Kylie Minogue to receive Brits global icon award and will perform at ceremony
Monica Bellucci - Ti Amo
Greece must address role in migrant vessel disaster that killed 600: Amnesty
Michael Jackson - Billie Jean Milena The Voice France 2018
Russian Oligarch's Seized Yacht Costs More Than $7 Million A Year To Maintain: US
Michael Buble (Help Me Make It Through The Night) feat Loren Allred
Memories Canon In D - Maroon 5 (Boyce Avenue piano acoustic cover)
Matteo Simoni - Marina
Maroon 5 - One More Night
Maroon 5 - Memories
Mark Knopfler - Brothers In Arms (Berlin 2007 Live)
Mark Knopfler & Emmylou Harris - Romeo And Juliet (Real Live Roadrunni
Marina, Marina - The LUCKY DUCKIES intimist live concert at Guimarães
Major Lazer & DJ Snake – Lean On Mauranne The Voice France 2016
Love Theme from Romeo and Juliet - Joslin - Henri Mancini, Nino Rota
LoLa & Hauser - Love Story
Linkin Park Jay-Z - Numb Encore (Live 8 2005)
Hallelujah Mennel Ibtissem, The Voice France Leonard Cohen
Leonard Cohen - Dance Me to the End of Love
Leonard Cohen & Natasha Rostova - Dance me to the end of love
La casa de papel - Bella Ciao
La Camisa Negra
L'italiano (Toto Cutugno) - The Gypsy Queens
Juanes - La Camisa Negra
Jonathan and Charlotte - Britain's Got Talent 2012 Live Semi Final - U
John Powell - Assassin's Tango
Joe Cocker - You Can Leave Your Hat On (LIVE in Dortmund)
Joe Cocker - Unchain My Heart 2002 Live
Joe Cocker - A Whiter Shade Of Pale
Jay Z & Alicia Keys - Empire State of Mind LIVE
Jason Mraz - Im Yours (live)
Jarrod Radnich - Bohemian Rhapsody - Virtuosic Piano Solo
James Blunt - You're Beautiful
James Blunt - You're Beautiful & Bonfire Heart (Live at The Nobel Peac)
If You Go Away - Helen Merrill & Stan Getz (Tribute to Virna Lisi)
I'LL BE MISSING YOU
I Say a Little Prayer
Hotel California ( Eagles ) 1994 Live
Historia de un amor - Luz Casal. Vezi interpretarea Biancăi Sumanariu
Here Comes The Sun - The Beatles (Boyce Avenue acoustic cover) on Spot
Heart - Stairway to Heaven Led Zeppelin - Kennedy Center Honors
HAVANA by Camila Cabello Zumba Pre Cooldown TML Crew Kramer Pastra
HAUSER and Señorita - I Will Always Love You
HAUSER - Waka Waka
HAUSER - Sway
HAUSER - Lambada
HAUSER - Historia de un Amor
HAUSER - Despacito
Great Pretender
Georgia May Foote & Giovanni Pernice Samba to 'Volare' - Strictly Come
Gary Moore - Still Got The Blues
GIPSY KINGS VOLARE Penelope Cruz
Fugees - Killing Me Softly With His Song
French Latino - Historia de un Amor
For A Few Dollars More The Danish National Symphony Orchestra (Live)
Flashdance • What a Feeling • Irene Cara
Filip Rudan - “Someone You Loved” Audicija 4 The Voice Hrvatska Sez
Eric Clapton - Wonderful Tonight
Enya - Only Time
Enrique Iglesias - Bailando (English Version) ft. Sean Paul
Enrique Iglesias - Bailamos
Elena Yerevan Historia de un amor
Ed Sheeran - Shape of You (Official Music Video)
Ed Sheeran - Perfect Symphony [with Andrea Bocelli]
Ed Sheeran - Perfect (Official Music Video)
Easy On Me - Adele (Boyce Avenue 90’s style piano acoustic cover) on S
ERA - Ameno
ELENA YEREVAN- Cancion Del Mariachi-IN STUDIO-2017 DPR
Dust In The Wind - Kansas (Boyce Avenue acoustic cover)
Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood
Despacito x Shape Of You - Pentatonix
Deep Purple - Child In Time - Live (1970)
David Foster When A Man Loves A WomanIt's A Mans World (SealMichael Bo
Dance me to the end of Love ( Pi-Air Design )
Coolio - Gangsta's Paradise (feat. L.V.) [Official Music Video]
Conquest Of Paradise (Vangelis), played on Böhm Emporio organ
Cielito Lindo
Chico & The Gypsies - Bamboleo
Canción Del Mariachi - Antonio Banderas, Los Lobos • Desperado
Camila Cabello - Havana (Audio) ft. Young Thug
Camila Cabello - Havana ( cover by J.Fla )
California Dreamin' - The Mamas & The Papas José Feliciano (Boyce Ave
Buster Benton - Money Is The Name of The Game
Hallelujah Pentatonix
Bobby McFerrin - Don't Worry Be Happy (Official Music Video)
Bob Dylan - Knockin' On Heaven's Door Emilia The Voice Kids France
Besame Mucho - Cesaria Evora
Ben E. King - Stand by Me Sax Cover Alexandra Ilieva Thomann
Bella Ciao
Bella Ciao - INSTRUMENTAL
Beautiful in White x Canon in D (Piano Cover by Riyandi Kusuma)
Bad Romance - Vintage 1920's Gatsby Style Lady Gaga Cover ft. Ariana Savalas & Sarah Reich(1)
BELLA CIAO 2020 - KARAOKE ITALIANO
BAMBOLEO - Gipsy Kings • Antonio Banderas, Katya Virshilas
BAILANDO (original)
Awesome Ukrainian yodeler - SOFIA SHKIDCHENKO (with English subtitles)
Avicii - The Nights
Atom - The Great Gig in the Sky
Aretha Franklin - (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman (Official Ly
Antonio Banderas - Cancion del Mariachi (Desperado)
André Rieu - Zorba's Dance (Sirtaki)
André Rieu - Can't Help Falling In Love
André Rieu & Mirusia - Ave Maria
Andrew Reyes Elton John - Don't Let The Sun Go Down The Voice 2020 (
Andreas Kümmert Whiter Shade Of Pale The Voice of Germany 2013 Showd
And I Love You So
All About That Bass - Postmodern Jukebox European Tour Version
Alan Walker - Faded (Piano Cover)
Ain't No Sunshine -- Bill Withers (cover by Canen 12 y.o.)
African music
Adriana Vidović - “Creep” Audicija 4 The Voice Hrvatska Sezona 3
Adriana Vidović - “Believer” Nokaut 3 The Voice Hrvatska Sezona 3
A Fistful of Dollars - The Danish National Symphony Orchestra and Tuva
4 Beautiful Soundtracks Relaxing Piano [10min]
2CELLOS - Whole Lotta Love vs. Beethoven 5th Symphony [OFFICIAL VIDEO]
2CELLOS - Smooth Criminal (Live at Suntory Hall, Tokyo)
2CELLOS - Smells Like Teen Spirit [Live at Sydney Opera House]
2CELLOS - Despacito [OFFICIAL VIDEO]
13 Year Old Girl Playing Il Silenzio (The Silence) - André Rieu
094.All About That Bass
00 - SADNESS PART 1
(Ghost) Riders In the Sky (American Outlaws Live at Nassau Coliseum, 1
(Everything I Do) I Do It For You - Bryan Adams (Boyce Avenue ft. Conn
What a wonderful world
Moon river
×