Testing association between candidate-gene markers and phenotype in related individuals, by use of estimating equations

Am J Hum Genet. 1997 Jul;61(1):189-99. doi: 10.1086/513895.


Association studies are one of the major strategies for identifying genetic factors underlying complex traits. In samples of related individuals, conventional statistical procedures are not valid for testing association, and maximum likelihood (ML) methods have to be used, but they are computationally demanding and are not necessarily robust to violations of their assumptions. Estimating equations (EE) offer an alternative to ML methods, for estimating association parameters in correlated data. We studied through simulations the behavior of EE in a large range of practical situations, including samples of nuclear families of varying sizes and mixtures of related and unrelated individuals. For a quantitative phenotype, the power of the EE test was comparable to that of a conventional ML test and close to the power expected in a sample of unrelated individuals. For a binary phenotype, the power of the EE test decreased with the degree of clustering, as did the power of the ML test. This result might be partly explained by a modeling of the correlations between responses that is less efficient than that in the quantitative case. In small samples (< 50 families), the variance of the EE association parameter tended to be underestimated, leading to an inflation of the type I error. The heterogeneity of cluster size induced a slight loss of efficiency of the EE estimator, by comparison with balanced samples. The major advantages of the EE technique are its computational simplicity and its great flexibility, easily allowing investigation of gene-gene and gene-environment interactions. It constitutes a powerful tool for testing genotype-phenotype association in related individuals.

MeSH terms

  • Female
  • Genetic Markers*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Models, Genetic*
  • Models, Statistical*
  • Nuclear Family
  • Phenotype*


  • Genetic Markers