Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Gene-Environment Interplay: Where We Are, Where We Are Going

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Gene-Environment Interplay: Where We Are, Where We Are Going

Article excerpt

In their article, Schlomer, Fosco, Cleveland, Vandenbergh, and Feinberg (2015) tackle the challenging area of integrating genetic information into a longitudinal, multigenerational developmental project. They bring a much-needed biopsychosocial perspective to address the question of "What processes account for the association between characteristics of the interparental relationship and adolescent internalizing?" The authors' hypotheses are rooted in previous theory and evidence concerning the perceptual and cognitive mechanisms that are likely to link interparental relationship characteristics and subsequent adolescent internalizing. Furthermore, they draw on differential susceptibility theory to hypothesize about how these processes may differ as a function of adolescents' DRD4 genotype.

The sample in which Schlomer et al. tested their hypotheses is impressive; notable strengths include data collected from multiple reporters in over 400 families over a 3-year period. However, this study also illustrates the many issues involved in integrating genetic information into family research and in particular the challenges associated with Gene× Environment interaction (GxE) research. Our goal here is to briefly summarize some of these challenges and to provide recommendations for conducting research in this area. The issues we raise are not intended as a critique of Schlomer et al.'s article specifically; instead, we use their article to begin a discussion of the challenges of candidate Gene × Environment interaction (cGxE) research and to encourage the incorporation of best cGxE methodological practices in family research going forward.


In the decade since Caspi and colleagues (2002) published their landmark (or notorious, depending on one's view) article documenting that genetic variation in MAOA interacted with harsh physical discipline to predict antisocial behavior, there has been a proliferation of interest in examining cGxE across variants in a range of purported risk genes and salient environmental factors (e.g., parenting quality, maltreatment, stressful life events) to predict behavioral outcomes. The idea that both genetic and environmental influences contribute to behavioral outcomes is widely accepted and, conceptually, cGxE research is compelling: Certain environments may change the relationship between one's genotype and the likelihood that that person will express a particular behavior. From the perspective of those of us who are interested in tracing behavioral trajectories across the life span, understanding how genetic predispositions unfold in the context of (changing) environmental influences is critically important and may guide the development of tailored intervention and prevention efforts for those at greatest risk. However, in practice, the study of cGxE is challenging-more challenging than is often appreciated by social scientists, we might argue-and, as a result, has become controversial (Duncan & Keller, 2011).


There are several interrelated conceptual and methodological challenges in cGxE research. Perhaps the biggest challenge when incorporating measured genotypic data into behavioral studies is the question of "Which gene?" Typically, in the behavioral sciences, a single variant in a handful of "usual suspect" candidate genes that have a purported biological function or are hypothesized to confer sensitivity to one's environment are examined (e.g., SLC6A4, MAOA, DRD2, DRD4, and COMT). For example, Schlomer et al. selected DRD4 on the basis that variation in this gene has been previously associated with sensitivity to one's environment. This approach for candidate gene selection is popular; however, it is problematic, for a few reasons. First, history has shown that we have not been very good at identifying plausible candidate genes that confer risk for behavioral outcomes (e.g., internalizing or externalizing behaviors), and very few well-replicated associations have emerged from these hypothesized genes of interest (Bosker et al. …

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