The UK Biobank is the single largest public genetic repository in the world, with samples of the genetic blueprints of half a million Brits standing by for scientific study. But when David Hill, a statistical geneticist at the University of Edinburgh, went poring through that data, he wasn’t looking for a cure for cancer or deeper insights into the biology of aging. Nothing like that. He was trying to figure out why some people make more money than others.
Along with a team of European collaborators, Hill sifted through the UK Biobank data to find about 286,000 participants who had answered a survey question about household income. Using that information they conducted something called a Genome Wide Association Study, where they looked at 18 million places in the genome to see which ones matched up with higher paychecks. They uncovered about 30, which account for 7.4 percent of household income variation across the United Kingdom. (For some context, another way of viewing the results is to say that 92.6 percent of a person’s income is explained by factors other than genetics.) Hill noticed that many of the genetic differences overlapped with areas known to be associated with intelligence, based on some of his prior work, and when he mapped them out they were largely expressed in the brain.
His team then used these regions to compute a polygenic score, a genetic calculation that predicts a person’s odds of reaching a certain outcome—of, say, developing diabetes or earning six figures. It didn’t perform particularly well, correctly forecasting only 2.5 percent of the differences in income in an independent sample of Scots. “Your DNA will not print you money,” says Hill. But he’s relieved to have found some small effect. “If you’re born with a predisposition for certain traits or abilities, and none of them counted in any way, shape, or form towards your income, then you’d have a profoundly unfair society, in my opinion,” he says.
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