59 It’s not all in the genes

Not all traits are directly caused by DNA alone. The environment also plays a large role in shaping an individual’s traits. Some examples can be seen below.

  • Height and weight: A number of genes interact to determine the general height and weight that a person will have. But the environment has a major influence as well. If an individual is malnourished, their growth may be slowed and they may be smaller than they would have been if they had gotten enough food. In contrast, if a person consumes more calories than they need, their weight will likely increase regardless of their genetics.


  • Fingerprints: the general characteristics of a person’s fingerprints are determined by genetics, but the specific pattern is generated randomly during development. Identical twins typically have fingerprints that are similar, but not identical.


  • Intelligence: Like most aspects of human behavior and cognition, intelligence is a complex trait that is influenced by both genetic and environmental factors. Roughly 50% of a person’s IQ appears to be determined by genetic factors. Factors related to a child’s home environment and parenting, education and availability of learning resources, and nutrition, among others, also contribute to intelligence. A person’s environment and genes influence each other, and it can be challenging to tease apart the effects of the environment from those of genetics. For example, if a child’s IQ is similar to that of his or her parents, is that similarity due to genetic factors passed down from parent to child, to shared environmental factors, or (most likely) to a combination of both? It is clear that both environmental and genetic factors play a part in determining intelligence.


  • Cancer Risk: For example, a person could inherit a mutation in the BRCA1 gene, which increases the risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer. Researchers have identified more than 1,800 mutations in the BRCA1 gene. Most BRCA1 gene mutations lead to the production of an abnormally short version of the BRCA1 protein or prevent any protein from being made from one copy of the gene. As a result, less of this protein is available to help repair damaged DNA or fix mutations that occur in other genes. As these defects accumulate, they can trigger cells to grow and divide uncontrollably to form a tumor. These mutations are present in every cell in the body and can be passed from one generation to the next. As a result, they are associated with cancers that cluster in families. However, not everyone who inherits a mutation in the BRCA1 gene will develop cancer. Other genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors also contribute to a person’s cancer risk.
  • In contrast, cancer can be caused by purely environmental factors. According to the CDC, cigarette smoking is the number one risk factor for lung cancer. In the United States, cigarette smoking is linked to about 90% of lung cancers and people who smoke are 15 to 30 times more likely to get lung cancer or die from lung cancer than people who do not smoke. Radon exposure also increases the likelihood that a person will develop lung cancer.


Figure 30: The colors on the poodle seen in this figure have no relationship to his DNA: he was dyed for a parade. (Credit: skeeze)


Unless otherwise noted, images on this page are licensed under CC-BY 4.0 by OpenStax.

“BRCA1” by Genetics Home Reference: Your Guide to Understanding Genetic ConditionsNational Institutes of Health: U.S> National Library of Medicine is in the Public Domain

“Is intelligence determined by genetics?” by Genetics Home Reference: Your Guide to Understanding Genetic ConditionsNational Institutes of Health: U.S> National Library of Medicine is in the Public Domain


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Mt Hood Community College Biology 102 Copyright © 2016 by Lisa Bartee and Christine Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.


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