Thinking about heritability

By Razib Khan | October 3, 2012 1:04 am


The heritability of a trait within a population is the proportion of observable differences in a trait between individuals within a population that is due to genetic differences. Factors including genetics, environment and random chance can all contribute to the variation between individuals in their observable characteristics (in their “phenotypes”)…Heritability thus analyzes the relative contributions of differences in genetic and non-genetic factors to the total phenotypic variance in a population. For instance, some humans in a population are taller than others; heritability attempts to identify how much genetics are playing a role in part of the population being extra tall.

Over at Haldane’s Sieve Dr. Joseph Pickrell has a commentary up on a preprint on explaining the ‘missing heritability’ using yeast genetics. All good reading. I long ago gave up on the idea that the idea of ‘heritability’ would ever be widely internalized among the educated public in any precise sense. But we muddle on. The next decade is going to be big for the genomics of complex traits. Or so people keep telling me!

But this gives me the excuse to point to a commentary which you really should read again and again. It is A commentary on ‘common SNPs explain a large proportion of the heritability for human height’ by Yang et al. (2010).:

Recently a paper authored by ourselves and a number of co-authors about the proportion of phenotypic variation in height that is explained by common SNPs was published in Nature Genetics (Yang et al., 2010). Common SNPs explain a large proportion of the heritability for human height (Yang et al.). During the refereeing process (the paper was rejected by two other journals before publication in Nature Genetics) and following the publication of Yang et al. (2010) it became clear to us that the methodology we applied, the interpretation of the results and the consequences of the findings on the genetic architecture of human height and that for other traits such as complex disease are not well understood or appreciated. Here we explain some of these issues in a style that is different from the primary publication, that is, in the form of a number of comments and questions and answers. We also report a number of additional results that show that the estimates of additive genetic variation are not driven by population structure.

Here again is an ungated PDF link. And this is the original paper which triggered this response, Common SNPs explain a large proportion of the heritability for human height.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Genetics, Genomics
  • Justin Loe

    See also:

    Gene-gene interactions (epistasis) are thought to be important in shaping complex traits, but they have been under-explored in genome-wide association studies (GWAS) due to the computational challenge of enumerating billions of single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) combinations. Fast screening tools are needed to make epistasis analysis routinely available in GWAS.”

    “We present BiForce to support high-throughput analysis of epistasis in GWAS for either quantitative or binary disease (case-control) traits. BiForce achieves great computational efficiency by using memory efficient data structures”

    So, perhaps tools such as the above can help resolve the problem of epistasis.

  • pconroy

    @1, Justin,

    BiForce looks very promising – great find!

    I’m sure detecting relevant epistasis is going to be the name of the game pretty soon. Very few “interesting” traits are not complex!


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This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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