Unleashing the power of potential

22nd January 2016 at 00:00
Solving the genetic puzzle could transform the future of teaching, helping even the most disadvantaged children reach higher than ever before. But fears of dystopian future practices continue to hinder progress in the field. Expert Dr Kat Arney argues that it’s time to reopen the DNA debate

Dear Mr and Mrs Franklin,

Thank you for enrolling Rosalind in Elmtree Junior School. In accordance with the GeneStart programme, brought in under the 2027 Access to Optimal Education Act, we have accessed your daughter’s genetic records in order to provide her with the most appropriate learning environment. Our genotype analysis suggests she may struggle with literacy and numeracy, meaning that she would benefit from more intensive attention and a small class size. Accordingly, she will be starting Year 1 in Mr Baxter’s Treetop class – a wonderfully encouraging environment in which we fully expect she will thrive.

Yours sincerely,

Jane Watson (Headteacher)

1 September, 2030

To some people, this scenario is deeply disturbing: a genetic dystopia where rising-fives are shuffled into deterministic bins based on the content of their genomes, elevated to the elite or doomed forever by their dodgy DNA.

To others, this future-school set-up represents a technically challenging but hugely beneficial step forward in individualising education, enabling every child to unlock their full potential.

But what is truth and what is mere science fiction when it comes to genetics? The answer to that question then demands another: why doesn’t genetics play a bigger role in education?

Piece of the puzzle

It’s easy to get the impression that our genes provide the foolproof recipe for life. The headlines tell us that our genes make our eyes blue, our hair curl and our bellies bulge; that they reveal our risk of diseases from diabetes to cancer; and that they betray our ethnic and geographical origins. In short, genes control our bodies and our minds – we are all enslaved by the biological blueprint within us.

In fact, as I’ve found over the past couple of years as I’ve travelled the world talking to scientists working on the cutting edge of genetics, this picture is far too simplistic. While there are a number of gene faults that are strongly linked to particular traits and diseases – such as mistakes in a gene called CFTR that cause cystic fibrosis – the majority of our quirks and characteristics come from the combined effects of a huge number of subtle genetic variations woven together.

When it comes to the genes governing intellectual and educational ability, the picture is particularly complex, with a vast tapestry of genes involved. Unpicking the strands is no small task, but thanks to advances in DNA sequencing and computational analysis, scientists are starting to focus in on the twisted threads of our nature.

A key researcher in this area is Professor Robert Plomin, based at the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London. He has dedicated his research career to studying what can be thought of as nature’s own cloning experiments: twins.

By comparing identical twins – who should share all of their DNA with each other – with non-identical or fraternal twins (as genetically distinct as regular siblings, but who happen to be born at the same time), he’s been investigating the extent to which particular genes affect different traits.

As director of the Twins Early Development Study (teds.ac.uk) – or Teds for short – he has been gathering genetic, developmental and educational data on more than 13,000 pairs of UK twins, identical and fraternal, born during Britpop’s halcyon years in the mid 1990s. I tracked him down to a tidy, book-lined office in the college’s Denmark Hill campus to find out how it works.

“If a trait like reading ability is heritable – that is, influenced by genes – you would predict that identical twins would be more similar to each other than fraternal twins, because they share more of their DNA,” he drawls, with a softly hypnotic midwestern US accent. “But you need a large group to see it: not just one pair of twins, but hundreds – thousands in our case.”

Brain teaser

Surprisingly to some, Professor Plomin’s analysis has shown that much of our brainpower and educational attainment is “in our genes” (although this is a bit of a misleading phrase, as we’ll see below). IQ – a flawed but handy measure of general intelligence – is around 70 per cent heritable, meaning that around 70 per cent of the differences between individuals in a population can be explained by variations in their genes, rather than environmental influences.

It’s important to note that this is about populations, not individual people. And it tells us nothing about the identities of the specific genes involved. This rather brain-bending concept is hard to get your head around, and is the source of much media confusion about genetics and the inheritance of intelligence.

“Diverse cognitive abilities – mental abilities like spatial ability, verbal ability and memory, as well as learning abilities like reading and maths – are all highly heritable,” explains Professor Plomin. “That means that there’s a lot of genetic influence. The main reason that one person differs from another is their genes – inherited differences in your DNA that you get from your parents. It’s no longer interesting to even ask the question ‘Is it heritable?’ because every single study over decades has shown that it is,” he emphasises.

Intriguingly, the Teds study reveals that what might be considered to be diverse talents – such as reading and maths – are tightly linked at the genetic level. For example, scoring a hatful of great GCSE grades across the board seems to be highly heritable, even after correcting for age, sex and general intelligence.

While this kicks against folksy ideas that children fall neatly into arts or sciences, it makes sense at a biological level. There aren’t genes “for” literary or mathematical aptitude, any more than there are genes “for” pedantry or political leanings.

Genes are the recipes that tell our cells how to make things – biochemical molecules such as proteins – that build our bodies, enabling them to function properly and respond to changes in the world around us. So it stands to reason that carrying genetic variations that cause a person’s brain to run a bit faster, make quicker connections or store and retrieve information more easily will give them a boost across the board.

“At a cognitive level, the sorts of thought processes that we use to solve problems in different subjects do seem to be very different,” Professor Plomin explains. “The thing is, though, they all use the brain. Although neuroscientists think of the brain as modular – this bit does this, that bit does that – from an evolutionary perspective, the brain is just a problem-solver. It solves problems in reading, it solves problems in maths, and it solves problems in spatial reasoning.”

Importantly, we’re not talking about one gene that determines how well a brain can do these things. We’re not even taking about a handful. We’re talking about hundreds or maybe thousands of DNA variations between people, each of which has a very small effect.

This is true across the board in biology: complex traits, ranging from characteristics such as intelligence to diseases like diabetes, are influenced by subtle changes to many genes. Which genes are they? It’s very difficult to pin down the actual suspects, although it’s something that Professor Plomin and others are working on.

Knowledge is power

But given that we now know how much of a child’s educational aptitude is encoded in their genes, what – if anything – should we do about it? To return to our dystopian scenario, should every child be genetically mapped and marked from birth, destined forever to be top of the class, in the bottom set or (more likely) somewhere in the middle?

This debate reared its head most recently in 2013, when Dominic Cummings – special adviser to the former education secretary Michael Gove – threw down an impressively hefty report outlining his wide-ranging thoughts on education, quoting everyone from Locke and Newton to James Bond author Ian Fleming.

I have to agree with his (widely misrepresented and misinterpreted) view that better understanding and inclusion of genetics has huge potential to inform policy and improve education, yet it “remains ignored in current debates outside a tiny group [and] when it is not ignored, it is often misunderstood, both by those who wrongly downplayed the importance of genes…and by those who wish to use genetics to justify the view that ‘they are doomed by their genes’.”

Where the confusion often arises is the play between nature and nurture. Although it’s clear from scientific studies that there is a heritable (ie, genetic) component to intelligence and academic aptitude, other research tells us that it’s a long way from being a fixed, inflexible benchmark. As any parent of identical twins will know, their children forge their own way through life. Although there are often somewhat freakish similarities, they don’t score exactly the same grades at school or follow the same career paths.

Professor Plomin’s colleague at King’s College London, Tim Spector – professor of genetics and another twin fanatic – is dissecting the dance between nature and nurture that leads to these differences. When I ask him whether every child should have their DNA “done” before they go to primary school, he’s politely dismissive.

“I don’t think it’s useful to do that because studies of identical twins have shown that, although overall they’re very similar for these things, there are also many exceptions,” he tells me.

“Anything that constrains that individuality, such as testing people genetically and putting them into some stream or interest group, would have a very negative effect, because I think we’re much more flexible than some people think our genes make us.”

This flexibility comes from “epigenetics” – a word so badly misunderstood that it probably deserves to be in therapy. In its purest sense, epigenetics explains how the right genes get switched on and off at the right time in the right cells in the body.

Virtually all of a person’s cells carry the same set of DNA – gifted to us when egg and sperm meet in the first moments of our existence – yet each one must make choices about what to be and how to behave as we develop and grow from single-celled embryo to adult, all the while responding to changes in the world within and around us.

“I like to use a musical analogy,” explains Professor Spector, likening the impact of the individual environment and upbringing on the identical genomes of twins to unique performances from matching musical scores. “You can have the same score but it’s interpreted differently every time it’s played. You can add notes, you can take them away, you can put expression in it and stick little dots on it – biology is always improvising around the edges.”

Natural habitat

Although there are differences in the notes and staves of the genetics across the general population, our bodies all hum a fundamentally human tune. And although many traits related to educational ability are encoded within our DNA – as shown by their strong heritability in twin studies – their effect pales in comparison with the influence of the environment, given the right (or, rather, wrong) circumstances.

For example, take the “fact” that IQ is 70 per cent heritable. In 2003, US researcher Eric Turkheimer and his colleagues published a study showing that in affluent areas, this holds up to be true – intellectual differences between kids are strongly linked to their genes, even up to 90 per cent heritable in some cases. But in impoverished families, the genetic component dropped to near zero. Regardless of how “good” a child’s genes were, they didn’t make a difference to their IQ (bit.ly/heritableIQ).

For Professor Spector, this is a key finding, and one that all educationalists should pay attention to. “The Turkheimer paper tells us that the environment is crucial,” he says. “You can’t fully express what’s in your genes until you’ve got the environment up to a minimum threshold, and this is why you need a socialist view of education.

“It’s not because of what’s in the genes – rather, the gene studies show the importance of the environment and these thresholds. You need to have a minimum home environment, school environment, social environment to make sure that a child’s brain can flourish and develop, so they can express their full genetic potential. Everyone’s got a maximum and minimum IQ that they could reach, you just want everyone to reach their maximum.”

Appliance of science

This is science with potent political and social implications. In Professor Spector’s view, it’s worth investing as early as possible, especially in troubled and impoverished families. Trying to fix it down the track, for example, by widening access to higher education, is simply acting too late.

“The environment had a negligible effect on most people like you or I, because we probably had a fairly average family environment,” he says, firmly nailing my nice middle-class upbringing. “But if you were brought up in the ‘badlands’, the family environment would have a greater effect – you’d be in that small percentage of people where it does have a big impact.”

While Spector and Plomin may seem at odds over the role of genetics in education, when you take their research together, there does seem to be an argument that genetically tailored education would be useful. Appropriate interventions – delivered as early as possible, with the potential for genetic streaming – can help to bridge the gap between nature and nurture.

We need to start talking about this issue openly and honestly. And we shouldn’t be scared of it, either. It’s OK to acknowledge that a child’s genetic make-up will have an impact on their educational outcomes. But this only works as long as society also accepts that this doesn’t mean that their fate is sealed.

We need to get away from the false dichotomy that bringing genetics into education policy discussions is either a dangerous lurch towards the world of dystopian sci-fi movies (or even Nazi-style eugenics) or an irrelevance in the face of environmental influences.

For kids whose genes put them at a disadvantage, a little help at the right time is likely to bump them up towards their more genetically gifted peers. And for those with great genes but unfortunate circumstances, the same thing applies.

As Professor Spector puts it: “Spend your money on the early years, on the teachers, and let’s see what each child’s genetic potential is.”

Dr Kat Arney is science communications manager at Cancer Research UK and a freelance science writer and broadcaster. She co-presents the Naked Scientists podcast and presents the Naked Genetics podcast. She has a doctorate in developmental genetics from the University of Cambridge. Her book, Herding Hemingway’s Cats, is available now (see page 28). @harpistkat

Gene theory: ‘things are more wobbly than expected’

For most of us, our first brush with genetics is in the classroom. We learn that our genes make us who we are and that the engine of evolution shapes all of the species on earth. And as the cost of DNA sequencing plummets – meaning that gene-reading technology is starting to infiltrate everything from cancer care to beauty products – we’re all going to have to learn to grapple with our genomes.

Unfortunately, although the language of genetics is commonplace, a good understanding of exactly what genes are and how they work is not. Figuring out how it all works – how your genes make you you – is a major challenge for researchers around the world.

What they’re discovering is that, far from genes being a fixed, deterministic blueprint, things are much more random and wobbly than anyone expected.

Drawing on stories ranging from six-toed cats and stickleback hips to Mickey Mouse mice and zombie genes, I’ve written a book exploring the mysteries in our genomes.

Herding Hemingway’s Cats: understanding how our genes work is suitable for A-level students, undergraduates or anyone else wishing to gain a deeper understanding of current thought in genetics, as well as providing an accessible grasp of the basics of molecular biology.

Herding Hemingway’s Cats was published on 14 January by Bloomsbury Sigma

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