Scientists delve into Beethoven's DNA and reveal that genes can (yet) tell us little about music

Scientists delve into Beethoven's DNA and reveal that genes can (yet) tell us little about music

Can you predict whether someone has musical talent based on genes? New research shows that the answer is not so simple. For example, Beethoven's musical genes do not score particularly high in the area of ​​rhythmic sense.

Scientists have long wondered: Can extraordinary talent be predicted on the basis of genes? This question was difficult to answer, but with today's improved technologies, researchers thought it would be a good idea to try again. Although a number of studies have already been conducted that tentatively suggest this, a recent study has now been published that essentially serves as a warning. “We registered the study before we started the analysis,” explains researcher Laura Wieseldyk. During this recording we emphasized that we had no expectations about how Beethoven's DNA would turn out. Our main goal was to show how difficult it is to make genetic predictions for an individual who lived more than 200 years ago. The research has been published in the journal Current biology.

Beethoven's poetry
The scholars began their study by drawing on another study, led by Tristan Page, that looked at Beethoven's poetry. Page's research at that time focused mainly on calculating the so-called “Polygenic markers(BJ); A score that determines how predisposed someone is to a particular personality trait based on their DNA. For this score, the effect of different DNA variants on the final performance of the individual is taken into account. This general information comes from large-scale, general studies on specific personality traits, also known as “Genome-wide association studies“(Guas).”

In short: Data from GWAS studies are ultimately used to associate specific DNA variations and combinations with the presence of specific personality traits. The individual's DNA is then 'screened' for these differences to ultimately calculate a personal PGI score – meaning more can be said about how much someone's talent depends on their genes. “We calculated the PGI score for the study based on the ability to clap in sync with the beat,” Wesseldyke adds. “This ability is related to music in general.” The researchers used a GWAS study in which a total of 606,826 individuals participated. During this study, participants were asked if they could clap along with the beat. Rhythm. This made it possible to identify specific DNA variations that may be associated with a strong sense of rhythm. After analyzing the GWAS results, it was time to take a look at Beethoven's DNA, which eventually allowed his PGI score to be calculated.

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Unfortunately, the score itself is not very useful; It is particularly interesting to compare these results with those of others so that the results can be put into context. In this final step, the researchers used two large DNA data sets to compare Beethoven's scores with those of other individuals. During this comparison, the researchers discovered that Beethoven did not score this high at all, and even remained below average. Fellow scientist and team member Simon Fisher explains: “It would of course be wrong to conclude that Beethoven's low PGI score means he was not an outstanding musician. Instead, we conclude that this study has provided an important lesson: we have demonstrated that the use of genetic testing cannot always Proves whether someone has an aptitude for something.

Musical genes
Scientists stress that this research does not change the fact that music can already be in the genes, and this has been proven many times before. For example, previous studies show that on average there is a 42% chance that children will inherit their parents' musical talent. Studying the genetic material of a large group of people could certainly help explain why musical skills and behaviors vary from person to person. For example, it also provides more knowledge about how music is linked to other characteristics, such as people's mental health. But using DNA to predict the behavior of specific individuals, as this research shows, is still very difficult.

Genetic predisposition (?)
The research is particularly important because of the cautionary implications it has. The researchers point out that PGI scores can be very useful, provided they are used with some caution. There are quite a few risks for scientists who rely too much on PGI results to reach their conclusions, or who use data from randomized GWAS studies. In their report, the scientists mention a number of weaknesses in the PGI results to better illustrate this. Scientists point out that the GWAS studies used can have a very large impact on final PGI scores: after all, these studies determine which groups are considered “normal” and which groups can predict giftedness. It is important to note that some genetic associations may be strongly linked to local culture. This means that the results of a GWAS study cannot simply be used all over the world: other countries not only have different cultures and customs, but also different DNA variations. As a result, some cultural elements may ultimately have a significant impact on the relationships found, causing GWAS studies to differ from each other.

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In addition, the researchers point out another sensitive point in the PGI results: the size of the population used is also very important. PGI scores are primarily relevant to larger groups and therefore not to every individual. It is possible for someone to have a low PGI score in a particular subject, when in fact the same person excels in the same subject – just as was the case with Beethoven. The scientists conclude their paper with valuable advice: As a researcher, don't look exclusively at PGI results. Instead, it is better to take other factors into consideration, such as the place, time and environment in which a person grows up.

Finally, scientists seem to refer almost directly to Page's aforementioned research with their advice. This scholar had good reason to analyze Beethoven's poetry: he hoped to learn more about the composer's health in this way. The ultimate goal at that time was to find out the source of Beethoven's various health ailments. For example, Beethoven suffered greatly from liver problems. Page wanted to determine whether there was a genetic predisposition to this condition. In the end this turned out to be the case: Beethoven scored very high in predisposition to developing cirrhosis. As a result, it was concluded at the time that PGI scores could predict whether or not someone was predisposed to something, even at the individual level. This research paints a slightly different picture: PGI results ultimately only provide part of the solution – and therefore not the entire answer.

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