A focus on social genomics for new research infrastructure

11 October 2019

Sven Oskarsson, political science professor.

Science has already shown that human behaviour is shaped by complex interactions between heredity and the social environment. Now researchers at Uppsala University are building a knowledge bank that will take social genomics to the next level.

Why do some people live healthier and happier lives than others? And what forces motivate us to pursue higher education and involvement in politics? Science has long sought the answers in purely socio-economic factors, but modern research shows how our heredity is an important component in understanding human behaviour. Researchers at Uppsala University now want to build a research infrastructure that will advance knowledge about the interaction between genes and the environment to the next level.

“Our social personality traits are complex constructs that are influenced by large numbers of genes, each of which has a marginal significance,” says Sven Oskarsson, a professor of political science. “Identifying patterns presupposes access to extensive amounts of information. We will now initiate collaborations with a selection of leading international participants who have the required materials at their disposal. Based on available data, we will then compile risk indices to streamline research into how genetic preconditions can predict our behaviour.”

Many offer genetic tests for individuals

The project is made possible by new, cost-effective technology that in a short time has reduced the cost of mapping a person’s DNA from billions to the equivalent of a normal restaurant tab. Many companies currently offer genetic tests for individuals, which means that new data is collected quickly and continuously. At the same time, this rapid development has breathed new life into the ethical debate about the risks genetic science.

“All research on human behaviour can be abused, so the discussion is both fully justified and needs to be actively pursued. Our work involves the educational task of clarifying that genetic factors can explain the differences in how different people function as social beings to only a limited extent. At the same time, it is imperative that we manage our material prudently, carefully and securely,” says Oskarsson.

Grants for digital storage of data

The Swedish Research Council recently granted SEK 13 million for creation of the planned infrastructure. Among other things, the grant will finance digital storage of data and salaries for five new positions to be located at Uppsala University, Harvard University and the University of Southern California. The project team is an outgrowth from an already existing international research environment, and within four years it expects to be able to offer a bank with uniformly developed indices that will make it easier for researchers from associated fields to start studies in social genomics.

“We are working in a rapidly advancing area, and we want the resource we are now developing to play a leading role in capitalising on the new opportunities that are continuously arising. The material will be applicable to several scientific disciplines with good opportunities for cross fertilisation, and together we can create a map that contributes to increased understanding of the world and forms the basis for interventions that pave the way for a fairer and more equal society,” says Sven Oskarsson.

 

Facts

The project Arvets betydelse för sociala beteenden: Nya ansatser i skärningspunkten mellan samhällsvetenskap och genetik (translation: “the importance of heredity for social behaviours: new approaches at the intersection of social science and genetics”) will begin on 1 January 2020 and will initially run through 31 December 2023.

Find out more

Nature via Nurture: Using novel methods to shed new light on how gene-environment interactions shape social, economic and political attitudes and behavior