Russian and UK scientists are studying genetic literacy

9 April 2018

The research team of TSU’s International Center for Human Development (ICHD) and the Accessible Genetics Consortium (TAGC) have published an article in the Journal of Community Genetics on the genetic literacy of the population. More than 5,400 people from 78 countries took part in the study of basic knowledge about genetics, which was conducted in social networks.

The project leader is Yulia Kovas, Professor of Genetics and Psychology, Director of the International Laboratory for Interdisciplinary Investigations into Individual Differences in Learning (InLab), Goldsmiths, University of London, and the International Centre for Research in Human Development (ICRHD) at TSU.

Genetics is the fastest growing science in the history of humankind. For example, the sequencing of the human genome in 2003 required billions of dollars and 15 years of research by an international team of scientists, and today it's a couple of hours, a thousand dollars, and the efforts of one geneticist. Moreover, the predictions of human behavior based on only individual DNA are becoming more accurate.

- Genetic literacy, which will allow people to make informed decisions about the use of their personal genetic information, is becoming especially important. And the first step to developing it is people’s study of knowledge about genetics, - explains Professor Yulia Kovas.

Scientists compared the answers to test tasks among people of different sex, age, religion, and place of residence. The questions were divided in two groups: general questions about the concepts of genes and DNA, and specific ones about the degree of genetic relationship of members of the same family and the number of genes in human DNA.

On average, people correctly answered 65.5% of the questions, a very small number given the test format and the basic level of information. Fewer than 50% of respondents knew the approximate number of genes in human DNA and the degree of genetic kinship between family members. Approximately 30% believed that such complex diseases as autism and schizophrenia are caused by one mutation; in fact, many more genetic factors are associated with these disorders. Hardly more than 1% answered all questions correctly. The researchers say that the average level of genetic knowledge in the population may be lower, because 87.6% of study participants had higher education, and all of them participated in the study via the Internet.

Also studied was how much people's conceptualization of the inheritance of certain characteristics (for example, intellect) coincides with the level of heritability determined by research. The results showed that participants' assessments were generally close to scientific facts, but people were inclined to underestimate the contribution of genes to weight, motivation, and academic achievements and to overestimate their contribution to intelligence, growth, and eye color. The scientists suggested that this is due to the notion that a person can more consciously control weight and motivation (and accordingly, the contribution of genes is less) and can control intelligence and eye color much less, for example.

Researchers also found that people's knowledge depended on the country where they received their secondary education. People who received it in the United States answered correctly on average more questions than participants who received secondary education in Russia, Ukraine, and the United Kingdom. This, according to the scientists, may be connected with the great interest of the US media in genetic research, and greater availability of commercial genetic tests in that country.

Analyzing the results, the scientists suggested paying attention to the existing gaps in genetic knowledge and making changes in educational programs and in educational policy in general. In addition, geneticists plan to attract more people from different countries for further research. This will allow studying the cross-cultural component of knowledge about genetics in more detail.

The article was published in the public domain.

The Accessible Genetics Consortium (TAGC) was established in 2015 at the international conference Building Bridges: Mobilizing international interdisciplinary science to benefit societies in London, organized by Goldsmiths, the University of London (UK) and Tomsk State University (Russia). A number of other research organizations joined the project. The Consortium is open to collaboration with organizations around the world.

The goal of the Consortium is to transmit knowledge about genetics in an accessible form, relying on norms of ethics and law so that scientific discoveries in genetics benefit everyone.