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Screening human embryos for polygenic traits has limited utility

By Ehud Karavani, Or Zuk, Danny Zeevi, Gil Atzmon, Nir Barzilai, Nikos C. Stefanis, Alex Hatzimanolis, Nikolaos Smyrnis, Dimitrios G. Avramopoulos, Leonid Kruglyak, Max Lam, Todd Lencz, Shai Carmi

Posted 05 May 2019
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/626846 (published DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2019.10.033)

Genome-wide association studies have led to the development of polygenic score (PS) predictors that explain increasing proportions of the variance in human complex traits. In parallel, progress in preimplantation genetic testing now allows genome-wide genotyping of embryos generated via in vitro fertilization (IVF). Jointly, these developments suggest the possibility of screening embryos for polygenic traits such as height or cognitive function. There are clear ethical, legal, and societal concerns regarding such a procedure, but these cannot be properly discussed in the absence of data on the expected outcomes of screening. Here, we use theory, simulations, and real data to evaluate the potential gain of PS-based embryo selection, defined as the expected difference in trait value between the top-scoring embryo and an average, unselected embryo. We observe that the gain increases very slowly with the number of embryos, but more rapidly with increased variance explained by the PS. Given currently available polygenic predictors and typical IVF yields, the average gain due to selection would be ≈2.5cm if selecting for height, and ≈2.5 IQ (intelligence quotient) points if selecting for cognitive function. These mean values are accompanied by wide confidence intervals; in real data drawn from nuclear families with up to 20 offspring each, we observe that the offspring with the highest PS for height was the tallest only in 25% of the families. We discuss prospects and limitations of PS-based embryo selection for the foreseeable future.

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