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Hum Genet. 2010 Mar;127(5):563-72. doi: 10.1007/s00439-010-0800-0. Epub 2010 Feb 16.

Population description and its role in the interpretation of genetic association.

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  • 1Department of Bioethics and Humanities, Center for Genomics and Healthcare Equality, University of Washington School of Medicine, Box 357120, Seattle, WA 98195, USA.


Despite calls for greater clarity and precision of population description, studies have documented persistent ambiguity in the use of race/ethnicity terms in genetic research. It is unclear why investigators tolerate such ambiguity, or what effect these practices have on the evaluation of reported associations. To explore the way that population description is used to replicate and/or extend previously reported genetic observations, we examined articles describing the association of the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor-gamma-gamma Pro12Ala polymorphism with type 2 diabetes mellitus and related phenotypes, published between 1997 and 2005. The 80 articles identified were subjected to a detailed content analysis to determine (1) how sampled populations were described, (2) whether and how the choice of sample was explained, and (3) how the allele frequency and genetic association findings identified were contextualized and interpreted. In common with previous reports, we observed a variety of sample descriptions and little explanation for the choice of population investigated. Samples of European origin were typically described with greater specificity than samples of other origin. However, findings from European samples were nearly always compared to samples described as "Caucasian" and sometimes generalized to all Caucasians or to all humans. These findings suggest that care with population description, while important, may not fully address analytical concerns regarding the interpretation of variable study outcomes or ethical concerns regarding the attribution of genetic observations to broad social groups. Instead, criteria which help investigators better distinguish justified and unjustified forms of population generalization may be required.

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