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Studying Personality Using Molecular Genetics

22 September, 2015 - 14:50

In addition to the use of behavioral genetics, our understanding of the role of biology in personality recently has been dramatically increased through the use of molecular genetics, which is thestudyof which genes areassociatedwith which personalitytraits (Goldsmith et al., 2003 Strachan & Read, 1999). 1These advances have occured as a result of new knowledge about the structure of human DNA made possible through the Human Genome Project and related work that has identified the genes in the human body (Human Genome Project, 2010). 2 Molecular genetics researchers have also developed new techniques that allow them to find the locations of genes within chromosomes and to identify the effects those genes have when activated or deactivated.

One approach that can be used in animals, usually in laboratory mice, is the knockout study. In this approach the researchers use specialized techniques to remove or modify the influence of a gene in a line of “knockout” mice (Crusio, Goldowitz, Holmes, & Wolfer, 2009). 3 The researchers harvest embryonic stem cells from mouse embryos and then modify the DNA of the cells. The DNA is created such that the action of certain genes will be eliminated or “knocked out.” The cells are then injected into the embryos of other mice that are implanted into the uteruses of living female mice. When these animals are born, they are studied to see whether their behavior differs from a control group of normal animals. Research has found that removing or changing genes in mice can affect their anxiety, aggression, learning, and socialization patterns.

In humans, a molecular genetics study normally begins with the collection of a DNA sample from the participants in the study, usually by taking some cells from the inner surface of the cheek. In the lab, the DNA is extracted from the sampled cells and is combined with a solution containing a marker for the particular genes of interest as well as a fluorescent dye. If the gene is present in the DNA of the individual, then the solution will bind to that gene and activate the dye. The more the gene is expressed, the stronger the reaction.

In one c ommon approach, DNA is collected from people who have a particular personality characteristic and also from people who do not. The DNA of the two groups is compared to see which genes differ between them. These studies are now able to compare thousands of genes at the same time. Research using molecular genetics has found genes associated with a variety of personality traits including novelty-seeking (Ekelund, Lichtermann, Järvelin, & Peltonen, 1999), 4 attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (Waldman & Gizer, 2006), 5 and smoking behavior (Thorgeirsson et al., 2008). 6