1. Genetics and Human Traits

Is intelligence determined by genetics?

Like most aspects of human behavior and cognition, intelligence is a complex trait that is influenced by both genetic and environmental factors.

Intelligence is challenging to study, in part because it can be defined and measured in different ways. Most definitions of intelligence include the ability to learn from experiences and adapt to changing environments. Elements of intelligence include the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, and understand complex ideas. Many studies rely on a measure of intelligence called the intelligence quotient (IQ).

Researchers have conducted many studies to look for genes that influence intelligence. Many of these studies have focused on similarities and differences in IQ within families, particularly looking at adopted children and twins. Other studies have examined variations across the entire genomes of many people (an approach called genome-wide association studies or GWAS) to determine whether any specific areas of the genome are associated with IQ. Studies have not conclusively identified any genes that have major roles in differences in intelligence. It is likely that a large number of genes are involved, each of which makes only a small contribution to a person’s intelligence. Other areas that contribute to intelligence, such as memory and verbal ability, involve additional genetic factors.

Intelligence is also strongly influenced by the environment. During a child’s development, factors that contribute to intelligence include their home environment and parenting, education and availability of learning resources, and healthcare and nutrition. A person’s environment and genes influence each other, and it can be challenging to tease apart the effects of the environment from those of genetics. For example, if a person’s level of intelligence is similar to that of their parents, is that similarity due to genetic factors passed down from parent to child, to shared environmental factors, or (most likely) to a combination of both? It is clear that both environmental and genetic factors play a part in determining intelligence.

1. Genetics and Human Traits

Is eye color determined by genetics?

A person’s eye color results from pigmentation of a structure called the iris, which surrounds the small black hole in the center of the eye (the pupil) and helps control how much light can enter the eye. The color of the iris ranges on a continuum from very light blue to dark brown. Most of the time eye color is categorized as blue, green/hazel, or brown. Brown is the most frequent eye color worldwide. 

Eye color is determined by variations in a person’s genes. Most of the genes associated with eye color are involved in the production, transport, or storage of a pigment called melanin. Eye color is directly related to the amount of melanin in the front layers of the iris. People with brown eyes have a large amount of melanin in the iris, while people with blue eyes have much less of this pigment.

A particular region on chromosome 15 plays a major role in eye color. Within this region, there are two genes located very close together: OCA2 and HERC2. The protein produced from the OCA2 gene, known as the P protein, is involved in the maturation of melanosomes, which are cellular structures that produce and store melanin. The P protein therefore plays a crucial role in the amount and quality of melanin that is present in the iris. Several common variations (polymorphisms) in the OCA2 gene reduce the amount of functional P protein that is produced. Less P protein means that less melanin is present in the iris, leading to blue eyes instead of brown in people with a polymorphism in this gene.

A region of the nearby HERC2 gene known as intron 86 contains a segment of DNA that controls the activity (expression) of the OCA2 gene, turning it on or off as needed. At least one polymorphism in this area of the HERC2 gene has been shown to reduce the expression of OCA2 and decrease P protein production, leading to less melanin in the iris and lighter-colored eyes.

Several other genes play smaller roles in determining eye color. Some of these genes are also involved in skin and hair coloring. Genes with reported roles in eye color include ASIPIRF4SLC24A4SLC24A5SLC45A2TPCN2TYR, and TYRP1. The effects of these genes likely combine with those of OCA2 and HERC2 to produce a continuum of eye colors in different people.

Researchers used to think that eye color was determined by a single gene and followed a simple inheritance pattern in which brown eyes were dominant to blue eyes. Under this model, it was believed that parents who both had blue eyes could not have a child with brown eyes. However, later studies showed that this model was too simplistic. Although it is uncommon, parents with blue eyes can have children with brown eyes. The inheritance of eye color is more complex than originally suspected because multiple genes are involved. While a child’s eye color can often be predicted by the eye colors of his or her parents and other relatives, genetic variations sometimes produce unexpected results.

Several disorders that affect eye color have been described. Ocular albinism is characterized by severely reduced pigmentation of the iris, which causes very light-colored eyes and significant problems with vision. Another condition called oculocutaneous albinism affects the pigmentation of the skin and hair in addition to the eyes. Affected individuals tend to have very light-colored irises, fair skin, and white or light-colored hair. Both ocular albinism and oculocutaneous albinism result from mutations in genes involved in the production and storage of melanin. Another condition called heterochromia is characterized by different-colored eyes in the same individual. Heterochromia can be caused by genetic changes or by a problem during eye development, or it can be acquired as a result of a disease or injury to the eye.

Eye anatomy

Two-panel drawing shows the outside and inside of the eye. The top panel shows outside of the eye including the eyelid, pupil, sclera, and iris; the bottom panel shows inside of the eye including the cornea, lens, ciliary body, retina, choroid, optic nerve, and vitreous humor.
1. Genetics and Human Traits

Are fingerprints determined by genetics?

Each person’s fingerprints are unique, which is why they have long been used as a way to identify individuals. Surprisingly little is known about the factors that influence a person’s fingerprint patterns. Like many other complex traits, studies suggest that both genetic and environmental factors play a role.

A person’s fingerprints are based on the patterns of skin ridges (called dermatoglyphs) on the pads of the fingers. These ridges are also present on the toes, the palms of the hands, and the soles of the feet. Although the basic whorl, arch, and loop patterns may be similar, the details of the patterns are specific to each individual.

Dermatoglyphs develop before birth and remain the same throughout life. The ridges begin to develop during the third month of fetal development, and they are fully formed by the sixth month. The function of these ridges is not entirely clear, but they likely increase sensitivity to touch.

The basic size, shape, and spacing of dermatoglyphs appear to be influenced by genetic factors. Studies suggest that multiple genes are involved, so the inheritance pattern is not straightforward. Genes that control the development of the various layers of skin, as well as the muscles, fat, and blood vessels underneath the skin, may all play a role in determining the pattern of ridges. The finer details of the patterns of skin ridges are influenced by other factors during fetal development, including substances taken during pregnancy and the environment inside the womb. These developmental factors cause each person’s dermatoglyphs to be different from everyone else’s. Even identical twins, who have the same DNA, have different fingerprints.

Few genes involved in dermatoglyph formation have been identified. Rare diseases characterized by abnormal or absent dermatoglyphs provide some clues as to their genetic basis. For example, a condition known as adermatoglyphia is characterized by an absence of dermatoglyphs, sometimes with other abnormalities of the skin. Adermatoglyphia is caused by mutations in a gene called SMARCAD1. Although this gene is clearly important for the formation of dermatoglyphs, its role in their development is unclear.