Newswise — The genetics of nearby mice can have a large impact on one animal’s weight and health, according to a report by Amelie Baud and Oliver Stegle of the European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL – EBI) in Hinxton, United Kingdom, published on January 25th, 2017 in PLOS Genetics.

Researchers know that human and animal health can be influenced – both positively and negatively – by how individuals interact with each other on a daily basis. But studying those social effects can be challenging, as they are difficult to pick apart and quantify.

Social effects can be measured without looking at behaviours or other characteristics of nearby mice directly, instead examining only how the genetic makeup of one animal impacts the traits (called phenotypes) of another animal it lives with. This is called ‘social genetic effects’.

For the first time, Baud and colleagues have quantified the contribution of social genetic effects to more than 100 different behavioral and physical phenotypes in laboratory mice. They compared the phenotype of one mouse with the genotypes of its cage mates, and found that social genetic effects explained up to 29% of the variation they observed in wound healing, anxiety level, immune function, and body weight. The study uncovers a surprisingly strong influence of the social environment, which has previously been overlooked in health studies.

This knowledge helps researchers clarify the contribution of different types of genetic and environmental factors on individual health. Using this approach to study social animals could greatly advance our understanding of social effects on health and disease in humans.

Furthermore, these factors may be an important component to understanding the genetics that underlie human traits with unclear causes. The scientists have demonstrated that ignoring social genetic effects can severely bias estimates of heritability in mice, suggesting that they may be an important source of the “missing heritability” in studies of complex traits in humans.


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Citation: Baud A, Mulligan MK, Casale FP, Ingels JF, Bohl CJ, Callebert J, et al. (2017) Genetic Variation in the Social Environment Contributes to Health and Disease. PLoS Genet 13(1): e1006498. doi:10.1371/journal.pgen.1006498

Funding: The High-Throughput Genomics Group at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics is funded by Wellcome Trust grant reference 090532/Z/09/Z and MRC Hub grant G0900747 91070. AB was supported by fellowships from the EMBL Interdisciplinary Postdoc Programme under Marie Curie COFUND Actions and the Wellcome Trust (105941/Z/14/Z). MKM, JFI, CJB, and RWW are supported in part by NIAAA grants (U01 AA016662, U01 AA013499, U01 AA014425) and the UTHSC Center for Integrative and Translational Genomics. The funders played no role in the study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

Journal Link: PLOS Genetics