Despite the recent rapid growth in genome-wide data, much of human variation remains entirely unexplained. A significant challenge in the pursuit of the genetic basis for variation in common human traits is the efficient, coordinated collection of genotype and phenotype data. We have developed a novel research framework that facilitates the parallel study of a wide assortment of traits within a single cohort. The approach takes advantage of the interactivity of the Web both to gather data and to present genetic information to research participants, while taking care to correct for the population structure inherent to this study design. Here we report initial results from a participant-driven study of 22 traits. Replications of associations (in the genes OCA2, HERC2, SLC45A2, SLC24A4, IRF4, TYR, TYRP1, ASIP, and MC1R) for hair color, eye color, and freckling validate the Web-based, self-reporting paradigm. The identification of novel associations for hair morphology (rs17646946, near TCHH; rs7349332, near WNT10A; and rs1556547, near OFCC1), freckling (rs2153271, in BNC2), the ability to smell the methanethiol produced after eating asparagus (rs4481887, near OR2M7), and photic sneeze reflex (rs10427255, near ZEB2, and rs11856995, near NR2F2) illustrates the power of the approach.
Twin studies have shown that many human physical characteristics, such as hair curl, earlobe shape, and pigmentation are at least partly heritable. In order to identify the genes involved in such traits, we administered Web-based surveys to the customer base of 23andMe, a personal genetics company. Upon completion of surveys, participants were able to see how their answers compared to those of other customers. Our examination of 22 different common traits in nearly 10,000 participants revealed associations among several single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs, a type of common DNA sequence variation) and freckling, hair curl, asparagus anosmia (the inability to detect certain urinary metabolites produced after eating asparagus), and photic sneeze reflex (the tendency to sneeze when entering bright light). Additionally our analysis verified the association of a large number of previously identified genes with variation in hair color, eye color, and freckling. Our analysis not only identified new genetic associations, but also showed that our novel way of doing research—collecting self-reported data over the Web from involved participants who also receive interpretations of their genetic data—is a viable alternative to traditional methods.