Skip to main content

Crohn's & Colitis
blogs, news & research


A brief history of human disease genetics

A primary goal of human genetics is to identify DNA sequence variants that influence biomedical traits, particularly those related to the onset and progression of human disease.

Genetic discoveries have substantially improved our understanding of the mechanisms responsible for many rare and common diseases and driven development of novel preventative and therapeutic strategies. Medical innovation will increasingly focus on delivering care tailored to individual patterns of genetic predisposition.


For almost all human diseases, individual susceptibility is, to some degree, influenced by genetic variation. Consequently, characterizing the relationship between sequence variation and disease predisposition provides a powerful tool for identifying processes fundamental to disease pathogenesis and highlighting novel strategies for prevention and treatment.

Over the past 25 years, advances in technology and analytical approaches, often building on major community projects—such as those that generated the human genome sequence1 and elaborated on that reference to capture sites of genetic variation2,3,4,5,6—have enabled many of the genes and variants that are causal for rare diseases to be identified and enabled a systematic dissection of the genetic basis of common multifactorial traits. There is growing momentum behind the application of this knowledge to drive innovation in clinical care, most obviously through developments in precision medicine. Genomic medicine, which was previously restricted to a few specific clinical indications, is poised to go mainstream.

This Review charts recent milestones in the history of human disease genetics and provides an opportunity to reflect on lessons learned by the human genetics community. We focus first on the long-standing division between genetic discovery efforts targeting rare variants with large effects and those seeking alleles that influence predisposition to common diseases. We describe how this division, with its echoes of the century-old debate between Mendelian and biometric views of human genetics, has obscured the continuous spectrum of disease risk alleles—across the range of frequencies and effect sizes—observed in the population, and outline how genome-wide analyses in large biobanks are transforming genetic research by enabling a comprehensive perspective on genotype–phenotype relationships. We describe how the expansion in the scale and scope of strategies for enumerating the functional consequences of genetic variation is transforming the torrent of genetic discoveries from the past decade into mechanistic insights, and the ways in which this knowledge increasingly underpins advances in clinical care. Finally, we reflect on some of the challenges and opportunities that confront the field, and the principles that will, over the coming decade, drive the application of human genetics to enhance understanding of health and disease and maximize clinical benefit.

Common diseases, common variants

Efforts to apply the approach—linkage analysis in multiplex pedigrees—that had been so successful for the high-penetrance variants responsible for Mendelian disease were, with notable exceptions34,35,36, largely unsuccessful for common, later-onset traits with more complex multifactorial aetiologies, such as asthma, diabetes and depression. Recognition that association-based methods, focused on detecting phenotype-related differences in variant allele frequencies might have greater traction for identifying less penetrant common alleles redirected attention to analysis of case–control samples37. However, initial efforts targeting variants within ‘candidate’ genes were plagued by inadequate power, unduly liberal thresholds for declaring significance and scant attention to sources of bias and confounding, resulting in overblown claims and failed replication.

Systematic efforts to characterize genome-wide patterns of genomic variation, initially through the HapMap Consortium2, proved catalytic, demonstrating that the allelic structure of the genome was segmented into haplotype blocks, each containing sets of correlated variants. Recognition that this configuration could support genome-wide surveys of association energized the technological innovation—in the form of massively parallel genotyping arrays—to make such studies possible (Fig. 1). Early wins in acute macular degeneration38 and inflammatory bowel disease39 were encouraging, and progress on several fronts—expansion of study size, denser genotyping arrays, novel strategies for imputation, attention to biases and appropriate significance thresholds—delivered robust associations across a range of diseases40. Most variants uncovered by these early genome-wide association studies (GWAS) were common, with more subtle effects than many had anticipated. A host of trait-specific consortia formed, covering diverse dichotomous and quantitative phenotypes, to accelerate genetic discovery through the aggregation and meta-analysis of data from multiple GWAS studies41,42,43. Many tens of thousands of robust associations were identified44. Recently, increased access to exome and whole-genome sequence data has, through both direct association analysis45,46 and imputation3,4, extended discovery to low-frequency and rare alleles previously inaccessible to GWAS.

In the decade since the first GWAS, understanding of the genetic basis of common human disease has been transformed. The disparity between the observed effects of the variants first identified by GWAS and estimates of overall trait heritability (the ‘missing heritability’ conundrum) is now largely resolved47. Common diseases are not simply aggregations of related Mendelian conditions: for most complex traits, genetic predisposition is shared across thousands of mostly common variants with individually modest effects on population risk41,43.

Although the collective contribution of low-frequency and rare risk alleles to overall trait variability appears modest compared with that attributable to common variants45,48, the rare risk alleles detected in current sample sizes necessarily have large phenotypic effects and are proportionately more likely to be coding, enhancing their value for biological inference. Founder populations (such as those from Finland and Iceland) have provided multiple examples of otherwise rare risk alleles driven to higher frequency locally through drift and/or selection49,50,51,52. In addition, studies in populations with high rates of consanguinity make it possible to identify individuals homozygous for otherwise rare loss-of-function alleles, the basis for a ‘human knockout’ project to systematically investigate the phenotypic consequences of gene disruption in humans53,54.

For most diseases, large-scale GWAS-aggregation efforts have been disproportionately powered by information from individuals of European descent55. Whereas patterns of genetic predisposition appear broadly similar across major population groups and many common risk alleles discovered in one population group are detectable in others, allele frequencies can vary substantially; extending GWAS and sequencing studies to diverse populations will surely generate a rich harvest of novel risk alleles.

The relative contributions of common and rare variants indicate that, for many traits, particularly those with post-reproductive onset, purifying selection has had only limited effect45,56. For a few risk alleles, hallmarks of balancing selection reflect increased carrier survival, usually through protection from infectious diseases. This includes well-known examples of alleles maintained at high frequency in populations of African descent57,58.

While the extensive linkage disequilibrium within human populations has been essential to discovery in GWAS, high correlation between adjacent variants frustrates mapping of the specific variants responsible for these associations. Increasing sample size, improved access to trans-ethnic data, and more representative imputation reference panels3 provide a path to improved resolution of the causal variants59 and clues to the molecular mechanisms through which they operate. Functional interpretation is easiest for causal variants within coding sequences; however, most common disease-risk variants map to noncoding sequences, and are presumed to influence predisposition through effects on transcriptional regulation. In these cases, mechanistic inference depends on connecting association signals to their downstream targets (see below). For many traits, there is clear convergence between common-variant association signals and genes implicated in monogenic forms of the same disease, as well as enrichment of GWAS signals in regulatory elements specifically active in cell types consistent with known disease biology60,61. This provides reassurance that, even as the number of association signals for a given disease proliferates, the genetic associations uncovered will coalesce around molecular and cellular processes with a core role in pathogenesis62,63.

Importantly, the signals discovered by GWAS have revealed many unexpected insights into the biological basis of complex disease. Examples include the role of complement in the pathogenesis of acute macular degeneration38, synaptic pruning in schizophrenia64 and autophagy in inflammatory bowel disease65. In addition, as inherited sequence variation is a prominent cause of phenotypic variation (but the reverse is not true), risk variants identified by GWAS have value as genetic instruments, mapping causal relationships between traits and inferring contributions made by circulating biomarkers and environmental exposures to disease development66.

As described below, findings from GWAS have increasing translational impact through identification of novel therapeutic targets67, prioritization (and deprioritization) of existing ones68 and development of polygenic scores that quantify individual genetic risk69.

Read full research paper here.

Download research: A brief history of human disease genetics

Posted on: January 27 2020

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

No comments found.

About the author

Crohns & Colitis