The genetics of height — and why it matters for everyone

March 6, 2019

This paid piece is sponsored by Sanford Health.

Look at the world and you see an abundance of sizes and statures. This holds true for ourselves as well. We can learn a great deal about humanity, our similarities and our differences by exploring a topic such as height.

Human height is complex, and many factors affect how tall a person will grow. Height is not solely determined by genetics. Nutrition, connection to quality food and socioeconomic class all influence overall height.

Yet for some, inherited genetic changes result in shorter height. Achondroplasia is one of many forms of dwarfism that occurs because of an inherited change in a person’s genetics.

At 7 p.m. March 12, Sanford Health is diving deeper into human height at “More Than Our Genetics: Stories of Dwarfism.” During the hourlong session in the Sanford Imagenetics courtyard, Sanford Health laboratory director Robert Pyatt and graduate student Andrea Schelhaas will present on:

  • The genetics of human height.
  • Dwarfism.
  • Ethical concerns and perspectives.
  • A panel discussion with genetic experts and individuals with dwarfism.

Rethinking diversity

“We want to present the perspective not just on people with dwarfism, but we want to present on the spectrum of genetics around human height,” Pyatt said. “This is the story of all of us. This is humanity. We all have unique genetics. Sometimes, a person’s genetic changes are more visible, but it is a spectrum, a continuum.”

“There is what we think of as typical human height, but then there are variants,” said Schelhaas, who has achondroplasia. “I have been asked, ‘Oh, if you could be taller, would you?’ I have always answered this question with a no because it is my identity.”

It’s not a bad question to ask, and it’s an interesting one to explore, she said.

“My height is something I value and has become cultural to me. I think it is a really cool thing for people to consider. There is value in diversity, and people who are diverse value their diversity. They may not see ‘disability’ as a bad thing but rather a variant of normal.”

If you could, would you?

Sometimes, the simplest questions are the hardest to answer. As genetics continues to advance and new technologies such as gene editing become available, the question becomes: What do we do with the information?

“We must ask ourselves if this is a characteristic that needs to be corrected. While we have the technology, and gene editing may be great for more severe things that are life and death, do we always need to use it?” Pyatt asked.

“What conditions do we say we need to spend the time and money to correct? Where do we just leave nature to nature?” Schelhaas added. “This technology could be incredible for a family whose child has a deadly condition, but I do not think it is incredible to use gene editing for dwarfism.”

A recent study looked at people’s attitudes toward gene editing, Pyatt said.

“The data came back stating that people are in support of using gene editing for conditions where people’s lives are at risk. However, for everything else, just let people be people. Our goal is for people to see the diversity from person to person but also to see the similarities we all share.”

To learn more, call 605-312-GENE.

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The genetics of height — and why it matters for everyone

Many factors affect how tall we become, including genetics. Height, dwarfism and ethics come together as genetics advances, creating unique questions. Learn more at a seminar next week.

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