Heritability estimates of birth weight have been inconsistent. Possible explanations are heritability changes during gestational age or the influence of covariates (e.g. chorionicity). The aim of this study was to model birth weights of twins across gestational age and to quantify the genetic and environmental components. We intended to reduce the common environmental variance to increase heritability and thereby the chance of identifying candidate genes influencing the genetic variance of birth weight. Perinatal data were obtained from 4232 live-born twin pairs from the East Flanders Prospective Twin Survey, Belgium. Heritability of birth weights across gestational ages was estimated using a non-linear multivariate Gaussian regression with covariates in the means model and in covariance structure. Maternal, twin-specific, and placental factors were considered as covariates. Heritability of birth weight decreased during gestation from 25 to 42 weeks. However, adjusting for covariates increased the heritability over this time period, with the highest heritability for first-born twins of multipara with separate placentas, who were staying alive (from 52% at 25 weeks to 30% at 42 weeks). Twin-specific factors revealed latent genetic components, whereas placental factors explained common and unique environmental factors. The number of placentas and site of the insertion of the umbilical cord masked the effect of chorionicity. Modeling genetic and environmental factors leads to a better estimate of their role in growth during gestation. For birth weight, mainly environmental factors were explained, resulting in an increase of the heritability and thereby the chance of finding genes influencing birth weight in linkage and association studies.
Gielen, M. J. F., Lindsey, P., Derom, C., Smeets, H. J., Souren, N. Y. P., Paulussen, A., Derom, R., & Nijhuis, J. G. (2008). Modeling genetic and environmental factors to increase heritability and ease the identification of candidate genes for birth weight: a twin study. Behavior Genetics, 38(1), 44-54. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10519-007-9170-3