Case: Do genes correlate with socio-economic characteristics?

Many of people's socio-economic characteristics, such as their position in the labour market and their educational attainments, are partly inherited. Genoeconomics seeks to map the relationship between genetic variants and economic choices and outcomes. The researchers use SURF's computing systems to process the large genetic datasets.

Close-up van Cartesius super computer

Entrepreneurial genes

Niels Rietveld, a lecturer in the Department of Applied Economics (Erasmus School of Economics), conducts research into genetic variants that correlate to economic choices and outcomes. His research started with a hunt for ‘entrepreneurial genes’: ‘My supervisor thought that certain genetic variants might correlate to entrepreneurial behaviour. This idea led to a research project being started in 2007 in collaboration with the Erasmus Medical Centre. I linked in with this. Initially, the focus of the research was entrepreneurship but it soon expanded to include socio-economic behaviour generally.’

Genetic research

Research into the relationship between genetic makeup and socio-economic outcomes has been under way for some 40 years, and has focused primarily on research involving twins. ‘This has indicated that many of these outcomes are hereditary,’ says Rietveld. ‘This was demonstrated not only for entrepreneurship but also for educational levels, income and economic preferences such as risk aversion, for example.’ A study from the early years indicates, for example, that some 40% of the differences in the educational attainment of American men can be explained by genetic differences.

Genetic association research

Rietveld is working with a group of researchers from different disciplines on a number of large-scale genetic association studies: ‘These relate to educational attainment, subjective wellbeing and attitude to risk. There are three major projects. Two years ago we published a paper on 3 genetic variants which correlate with people's educational attainment. We're now doing a follow-up study where we're investigating more variants.’ The subjective wellbeing project is also well advanced. The risk attitude project is still in its infancy.

Rek met buisjes

photo: Arden Tissue Bank


Rietveld and his colleagues have access to a number of datasets containing genetic information but they also use a lot of meta-analysis techniques. ‘A lot of research centres have a dataset containing genetic information,’ says Rietveld. ‘But they can't always share this genetic data with us. We ask these centres to carry out specific analyses based on an analysis plan that we draw up. They send us the results and we use them to perform a meta-analysis.’

Lisa and Cartesius

For their own colleagues the researchers use SURFsara's computing systems. They've been using Lisa for years but since last year they've also been using Cartesius, says Rietveld: ‘Last year we obtained access to a large dataset, the UK Biobank. It currently contains data on 150,000 people but this figure will eventually increase to 500,000. That will push Lisa to the limit, so we're currently migrating to Cartesius.’

Cooperation with SURFsara

Rietveld is pleased with the collaboration with SURFsara: ‘It's going really well. They give us a lot of support. Accessing the servers, which is really important for us, is really easy. As well as Lisa and Cartesius, we also use the BeeHub cluster to share files with each other. It's easy to get hold of people, communication is good and they always look for a solution to every problem.'

“The cooperation with SURFsara is going really well. It's easy to get hold of people, communication is good and they always look for a solution to every problem.”
Niels Rietveld, a lecturer in the Department of Applied Economics (Erasmus School of Economics)