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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Quantitative Genetics in the Postmodern Family of the Donor Sibling Registry

  • Author(s): Lee, Joseph Christopher
  • Advisor(s): Risch, Neil
  • et al.

Quantitative genetics is primarily concerned with two subjects: the correlation between relatives and the response to selection. The correlation between relatives is used to determine the heritability of a trait — the key quantity that addresses the question of nature vs. nurture. Heritability, in turn, is used to predict the response to selection — the main driver of improvements in crops and livestock. The theory of quantitative genetics has been thoroughly tested and applied in plants and animals, but heritability and selection remain open questions in humans due to limited natural experimental designs.

The Donor Sibling Registry (DSR) is an organization that helps individuals conceived as a result of sperm, egg, or embryo donation make contact with genetically related individuals. Families who conceived children via anonymous sperm donation join the DSR and match with other families who used the same donor ID at the same sperm bank. The resulting donor pedigree consists of heterosexual, lesbian, and single mother families who are connected through the common anonymous sperm donor used to conceive their children.

Here, we introduce a new quantitative genetic study design based on the unprecedented family relationships found in the donor pedigree. We surveyed 945 individual families constituting 159 donor pedigrees from the Donor Sibling Registry and used their demographic, physical, and behavioral characteristics to conduct a quantitative genetic study of selection and heritability. A direct measurement of phenotypic assortment showed mothers actively selected mates for height, eye color, and religion. Artificial selection for donor height increased mean child height in a manner consistent with the selection differential. Reared-apart donor-conceived paternal half-siblings provided unbiased heritability estimates for traits influenced by maternal and contrast effects. Maternal effects were important in determining the variance of birth weight while eliminating contrast effects revealed sociability to be a highly heritable childhood temperament. Thus, the unprecedented family relationships in the donor pedigree enable a universal model for quantitative genetics.

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