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Family Ties: May 18, 2018

Emergency contact data has helped researchers figure out whether certain conditions run in families, the New York Times reports.

Because many people use relatives as their contact person and that contact might list another relative or next-of-kin information on their own forms, researchers from Columbia University and elsewhere were able to generate 223,000 family trees connecting blood relatives using electronic health record data from 3.5 million patients at three medical centers in New York. As Columbia's Nicholas Tatonetti and his colleagues report in Cell, they could then use these family trees to estimate the heritability of hundreds of traits, including anxiety, sinusitis, and sickle cell disorders. They found that their estimates largely matched with ones from previous twin studies and provided heritability estimates for conditions where none were available.

First author Fernanda Polubriaginof, a graduate student at Columbia, tells the Times that most genetic research has involved people of European ancestry, but that this New York dataset was more diverse.

However, the researchers note that it brings up a host of ethical and privacy concerns. Vanderbilt University's Dan Roden tells Science that it could make people less likely to provide contact information. "The idea that researchers are mining information about your family without letting you know, it does run the risk of alienating people. We have to be pretty careful to make sure the public stays a partner in efforts to grow these large datasets," he says.