Environmental factors can confound identification of a major gene effect: results from a segregation analysis of a simulated population of lung cancer families

Genet Epidemiol. 1998;15(3):251-62. doi: 10.1002/(SICI)1098-2272(1998)15:3<251::AID-GEPI4>3.0.CO;2-7.


Proper control of environmental factors can be crucial to the identification of genes that influence susceptibility to a complex trait, especially for a trait such as lung cancer, for which the environmental factor (smoking) accounts for a significant etiologic fraction of the disease. An earlier segregation analysis of 337 Louisiana families, which incorporated direct measure of tobacco consumption, provided evidence for autosomal codominant inheritance of a major gene that influenced age at onset of lung cancer. Subsequent analyses were performed in which the families were stratified into two subsets based on birth cohort of the proband; results suggested the presence of heterogeneity that were postulated to reflect the influence of cohort trends in tobacco consumption. To evaluate this hypothesis further, we simulated a population of three-generation pedigrees in which an autosomal dominant mode of susceptibility to lung cancer was transmitted, but tobacco use varied across generations corresponding to published trends in smoking. A total of 200,000 individuals in families of various sizes, ages, and cigarette smoking habits were simulated from 1900 to 1980. From this population, 324 families (2,405 individuals) with 380 cases of lung cancer were ascertained through 328 lung cancer probands. Complex segregation analysis was performed using the REGTL program of S.A.G.E. in which pack-years of tobacco exposure were incorporated directly into the likelihood calculations. Although the no major gene, environmental, and Mendelian recessive hypotheses were rejected, both dominant and codominant transmission provided a good fit to the data. Thus in a population of simulated families with autosomal dominant susceptibility to lung cancer, intergenerational differences in tobacco consumption led to the detection of autosomal codominant transmission as an acceptable hypothesis. These results underscore the potential danger of segregation analysis of complex traits in which exposure to known environmental influences may differ across generations.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Computer Simulation*
  • Confounding Factors, Epidemiologic
  • Environmental Health*
  • Family Health
  • Female
  • Genes, Dominant
  • Genes, Recessive
  • Genetic Predisposition to Disease
  • Genetics, Population*
  • Humans
  • Lung Neoplasms / epidemiology
  • Lung Neoplasms / genetics*
  • Male
  • Meiosis / genetics
  • Models, Genetic*
  • Risk Factors
  • Smoking / adverse effects*
  • United States / epidemiology