Homozygosity has long been associated with rare, often devastating, Mendelian disorders1, and Darwin was one of the first to recognize that inbreeding reduces evolutionary fitness2. However, the effect of the more distant parental relatedness that is common in modern human populations is less well understood. Genomic data now allow us to investigate the effects of homozygosity on traits of public health importance by observing contiguous homozygous segments (runs of homozygosity), which are inferred to be homozygous along their complete length. Given the low levels of genome-wide homozygosity prevalent in most human populations, information is required on very large numbers of people to provide sufficient power3,4. Here we use runs of homozygosity to study 16 health-related quantitative traits in 354,224 individuals from 102 cohorts, and find statistically significant associations between summed runs of homozygosity and four complex traits: height, forced expiratory lung volume in one second, general cognitive ability and educational attainment (P < 1 × 10−300, 2.1 × 10−6, 2.5 × 10−10 and 1.8 × 10−10, respectively). In each case, increased homozygosity was associated with decreased trait value, equivalent to the offspring of first cousins being 1.2 cm shorter and having 10 months’ less education. Similar effect sizes were found across four continental groups and populations with different degrees of genome-wide homozygosity, providing evidence that homozygosity, rather than confounding, directly contributes to phenotypic variance. Contrary to earlier reports in substantially smaller samples5,6, no evidence was seen of an influence of genome-wide homozygosity on blood pressure and low density lipoprotein cholesterol, or ten other cardio-metabolic traits. Since directional dominance is predicted for traits under directional evolutionary selection7, this study provides evidence that increased stature and cognitive function have been positively selected in human evolution, whereas many important risk factors for late-onset complex diseases may not have been.
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This paper is the work of the ROHgen consortium. We thank the participants in all ROHgen studies; cohort-specific acknowledgements are detailed in Supplementary Table 6. This work was funded by a UK Medical Research Council (MRC) PhD studentship to P.K.J.; and J.F.W. and O.P. acknowledge support from the MRC Human Genetics Unit “QTL in Health and Disease” programme. We thank W. G. Hill for discussions and comments on the manuscript and K. Lindsay for administrative assistance.
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Extended data tables
This file contains full legends for Supplementary Tables 1-11.
About this article
Nature Reviews Genetics (2018)