Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Scientists Use Genetics to Unravel the Mystery of Human Height

Have you ever had a friend or family member who is peculiarly tall, short, or the same when compared to their (or your) parents? This question certainly leads to a bigger, more relevant question⎯ how much of their height can be explained by genetics? Researchers have asked themselves this question for years, and in a recent breakthrough, they have answered it. 

Schools of the GIANT consortium, including the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Harvard Medical School, and Boston’s Children’s Hospital, have successfully identified over 12,000 different genetic variants that influence an individual's height. They accomplished this figure utilizing the DNA from a staggering 5.4 million people. Researchers say these 12,000+ genetic variants explain about a 10% (for non-Europeans) to 40% (for those with European ancestry) variation in overall height. The reason for this difference in variance for the regions is simply because more European DNA was analyzed than other regions. 

The 12,111 “variants” are more adequately described as single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs). This essentially means that the genetic code in specific regions in DNA was different by a singular nucleotide, which in turn affected the individual’s height. At the head of this impressive research is Dr. Joel Hirschhorn, who is the Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School as well as a Concordia Professor of Pediatrics at Boston’s Children’s Hospital. Dr. Hirschhorn, along with many others, worked for over 20 years to uncover the mystery of height genetics, and with the introduction of services such as 23andMe, he and his peers were able to use an unfathomable number of individual’s DNA to compile their data. 

In my opinion, this research is monumental, and serves as a reminder of how science is ever evolving with the technology we have at our disposal. The outcomes of this research that I anticipate are how it can be utilized clinically to explain certain outliers when it comes to a lack in height development, as well as potentially (as someone who majors in Exercise Science) how it can be utilized to analyze height’s influence on human performance, especially with human morphology. What I would have liked to have learned more about is the effects that proper dieting and exercise can have on fulfilling these height genetics. It goes without question that an individual who is malnourished or refuses to exercise during their developmental years will not develop to nearly the same extent as their healthy counterparts, therefore it would have been interesting to know this relationship. To my next point, that is the limitation of using 23andMe for this data. While it does allow the researchers to analyze the genomes in the 12,111 SNPs, it is impossible for them to account for how the individual's environment specifically impacted how well they fulfilled or superseded their genetically predicted height. 

Harvard Medical School Article

Boston's Children's Hospital Article

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