12,000 genetic variants affect height in people with European ancestry

Over 12,000 genetic variants play a role in height differences among people with European ancestry, though these variants have a much smaller influence in people with other ancestries

Humans 12 October 2022

Tall man and short woman

Genetics can explain much of our height variation

Geoff Smith / Alamy

A study of 5.4 million people has revealed that over 12,000 genetic variants have an influence on height differences among those with European ancestry. The findings could deepen our understanding of medical conditions affecting growth.

“We have discovered most of the common genetic variants associated with height in European ancestry populations,” says Loic Yengo at the University of Queensland in Australia. “We can predict someone’s height better than using the average height of their biological parents.”

Yengo and his colleagues used a computational analysis to compare the height and genomes of 5.4 million people, 75 per cent of whom had mainly European ancestry. The team collected data from previous studies or from the DNA testing company 23andMe.

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This revealed 12,111 common genetic variants – each found in more than 1 per cent of the population – that could explain 40 per cent of height differences among people with European ancestry. Each genetic variant was a single nucleotide polymorphism, where the specific DNA base at a position in the genome varies across a population.

The findings support earlier studies which predicted that 40 to 50 per cent of height variation among people could be explained by common genetic variants.

“Of the remaining 60 per cent in height variation, 40 per cent is [thought to be] from less common genetic variants [that occur in less than 1 per cent of the population] and 20 per cent is from the environment,” says Yengo, meaning due to factors such as poor nutrition.

The team also found that the common genetic variants associated with height made up about 20 per cent of the genome and were clustered in regions linked to medical conditions affecting skeletal growth.

“Our study can help us understand the biology of growth. Growth processes are important in human development and can be altered by diseases,” says Yengo. The findings could also shed light on why being taller seems to increase the risk of conditions like coronary heart disease.

However, the genetic variants in the study could only explain about 10 per cent of the height differences among those with East Asian, Hispanic, African and South Asian ancestry.

Although the study is the most genetically diverse of its kind, further work is needed to focus more on non-European ancestries, says Yengo.

“The immense size of this study coupled with the strong genetic basis of height have led to a big breakthrough in genomic research – the first complex human trait where most of the genetic basis has been identified for people of European descent,” says Karoline Kuchenbaecker at University College London.

Journal reference: Nature, DOI: 10.1038/s41586-022-05275-y

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