Behavior Genetics

, Volume 46, Issue 3, pp 365–377 | Cite as

Passive rGE or Developmental Gene-Environment Cascade? An Investigation of the Role of Xenobiotic Metabolism Genes in the Association Between Smoke Exposure During Pregnancy and Child Birth Weight

  • Kristine Marceau
  • Rohan H. C. Palmer
  • Jenae M. Neiderhiser
  • Taylor F. Smith
  • John E. McGeary
  • Valerie S. Knopik
Original Research


There is considerable evidence that smoke exposure during pregnancy (SDP) environmentally influences birth weight after controlling for genetic influences and maternal characteristics. However, maternal smoking during pregnancy—the behavior that leads to smoke exposure during pregnancy—is also genetically-influenced, indicating the potential role of passive gene-environment correlation. An alternative to passive gene-SDP correlation is a cascading effect whereby maternal and child genetic influences are causally linked to prenatal exposures, which then have an ‘environmental’ effect on the development of the child’s biology and behavior. We describe and demonstrate a conceptual framework for disentangling passive rGE from this cascading GE effect using a systems-based polygenic scoring approach comprised of genes shown to be important in the xenobiotic (substances foreign to the body) metabolism pathway. Data were drawn from 5044 families from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children with information on maternal SDP, birth weight, and genetic polymorphisms in the xenobiotic pathway. Within a k-fold cross-validation approach (k = 5), we created weighted maternal and child polygenic scores using 18 polymorphisms from 10 genes that have been implicated in the xenobiotic metabolism pathway. Mothers and children shared variation in xenobiotic metabolism genes. Amongst mothers who smoked during pregnancy, neither maternal nor child xenobiotic metabolism polygenic scores were associated with a higher likelihood of smoke exposure during pregnancy, or the severity of smoke exposure during pregnancy (and therefore, neither proposed mechanism was supported), or with child birth weight. SDP was consistently associated with lower child birth weight controlling for the polygenic scores, maternal educational attainment, social class, psychiatric problems, and age. Limitations of the study design and the potential of the framework using other designs are discussed.


ALSPAC Passive gene-environment correlation Birth weight Smoking during pregnancy Polygenic 



We are extremely grateful to all the families who took part in this study, the midwives for their help in recruiting them, and the whole ALSPAC team, which includes interviewers, computer and laboratory technicians, clerical workers, research scientists, volunteers, managers, receptionists and nurses. The UK Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust (Grant Ref: 102215/2/13/2) and the University of Bristol provide core support for ALSPAC. We sincerely thank Lindon Eaves for his thoughtful feedback on the model and conceptual approach. This publication is the work of the authors and K Marceau, R Palmer, JM Neiderhiser, T Smith, & VS Knopik will serve as guarantors for the contents of this paper. Authors were supported by the following sources: T32MH019927 and T32DA016184 (Marceau), K01AA021113 (Palmer), MH092118 (Neiderhiser), T32MH19927 (Smith), DA023134 (Knopik).

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Human and Animal Rights and Informed Consent

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards. This article does not contain any studies with animals performed by any of the authors. Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Division of Behavioral Genetics, Department of PsychiatryRhode Island HospitalProvidenceUSA
  2. 2.Center for Alcohol and Addiction StudiesBrown UniversityProvidenceUSA
  3. 3.Department of Psychiatry and Human BehaviorBrown UniversityProvidenceUSA
  4. 4.Psychology DepartmentThe Pennsylvania State UniversityState CollegeUSA
  5. 5.Department of Psychology and Child DevelopmentCalifornia Polytechnic State UniversitySan Luis ObispoUSA

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