Professor Peter Visscher
Chair and Group Leader, Quantitative Genetics

Phone" +61 7 3346 1814

Variation in complex traits determines much of the diversity between individuals and populations, including differences in susceptibility to disease.
Professor Peter Visscher wants to know how the collective effect of numerous single genetic mutations contributes to the development of complex traits, and is developing the computational tools needed to navigate numerous genomes for this information.  The outcome could help clinicians assess patient risk for diseases that were once thought unpredictable.

Now a leader in statistical genetics, Visscher was initially interested in agricultural pursuits. He earned a BSc in Animal Science at a Higher Agricultural College in the Netherlands, after which he worked for the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture. It was there that he became involved in genetics research and its applications, particularly statistical and computation tools based upon sound theory. 

“I realised that I wanted to learn why instead of how things were done,” he says.

Visscher moved to Scotland to attend the University of Edinburgh, known for its long-standing excellence in quantitative genetics. He earned a masters degree in Animal Breeding (1988), followed by a PhD in Animal Genetics (1991).

Visscher’s interest in examining genetic parameters in large dairy cattle pedigrees led to an opportunity work with Professor Mike Goddard, a renowned quantitative geneticist then at The Victorian Institute of Animal Science in Melbourne.  They searched for genetic determinants of heritable traits in Australian dairy cattle in order to develop novel genetic evaluation methods. The outcome of their work has since helped inform cattle breeding strategies in the Australian and overseas dairy industries.

Visscher subsequently moved back to Edinburgh to work with Professor Chris Haley at the Roslin Institute to learn about gene mapping methods and molecular genetic analysis of complex traits.  In light of the increasingly large volumes of data relating to heritable genetic markers, analytical tools are needed to quantify and interpret this information in order to elucidate the underlying causes of trait variation. Visscher explains that one of the most important outcomes of his work with Haley was their integration of quantitative and molecular genetics to develop and apply much needed statistical analysis methods.

Visscher was awarded a faculty position at the University of Edinburgh in 1995 where he extended his research focus to include genetic epidemiology and population based studies. His interests shifted from applications in livestock genetics to human genetics and he developed a new gene mapping approach that was used to validate a susceptibility locus for bipolar disorder.

Then, in 2005, he accepted a post at the Queensland Institute of Medical Research in Brisbane in order to further his work on genome mapping, where he established a highly successful research group in statistical genetics.

“Our studies have contributed to the acceptance that there are many genes involved in ‘complex diseases’,” he explains. Moreover, the novel bioinformatic algorithms developed in the course of this work are now in wide-spread use for gene mapping research.

Professor Visscher now holds joint posts at the University of Queensland Diamantina Institute (UQDI) and the Queensland Brain Institute. He continues his research into how SNP accumulation contributes to the development of complex traits and diseases. To this end he is developing and optimising computational bioinformatics methods that will help explain individual differences in disease susceptibility.  

“The question for the near future is how to draw the right inference from complete genome sequences of tens of thousands of people” says Visscher. If he is successful, he adds, “it will mean better predictive, preventive and diagnostic tools in a clinical setting, and being able to personalise medicine.”

Visscher believes that the genetics and genomics resources available at UQDI, along with the expertise in auto-immune disease genetics, will be essential to meeting this challenge and translating his findings in complex diseases into clinical practice.  Moreover, he is driven by the pleasure of working with a fantastic team of researchers and seeing their group efforts recognised by the wider scientific community.  

Ultimately, he explains,  “My reward is the satisfaction of better understanding nature and the confidence that basic research can ultimately lead to real improvements in people’s lives.”

Research projects:

  • Heritability of gene expression
  • Statistical methods and applications using SNP data to test whether risk factors for disease are causative
  • Understanding the genetic architecture of complex traits through analysis of DNA sequence data
  • Development and application of risk prediction models for common diseases
Recent publications
  1. Davies G, Tenesa A, Payton A, Yang J, Harris SE, Liewald D, Ke X, Le Hellard S, Christoforou A, Luciano M, McGhee K, Lopez L, Gow AJ, Corley J, Redmond P, Fox HC, Haggarty P, Whalley LJ, McNeill G, Goddard ME, Espeseth T, Lundervold AJ, Reinvang I, Pickles A, Steen VM, Ollier W, Porteous DJ, Horan M, Starr JM, Pendleton N, Visscher PM, Deary IJ (2011). Genome-wide association studies establish that human intelligence is highly heritable and polygenic. Molecular Psychiatry 16:996-1005.
  2. Deary IJ, Yang J, Davies G, Harris SE, Tenesa A, Liewald D, Luciano M, Lopez LM, Gow AJ, Corley J, Redmond P, Fox HC, Rowe SJ, Haggarty P, McNeill G, Goddard ME, Porteous DJ, Whalley LJ, Starr JM, Visscher PM (2012). Genetic contributions to stability and change in intelligence from childhood to old age. Nature 482:212-5.
  3. Lee SH, Wray NR, Goddard ME, Visscher PM (2011): Estimating Missing Heritability for Disease from Genome-wide Association Studies. American Journal of Human Genetics 88:294-305.
  4. Purcell SM, Wray NR, Stone JL, Visscher PM, O’Donovan MC, Sullivan PF, Sklar P. International Schizophrenia Consortium (2009) Common polygenic variation plays an important role in schizophrenia. Nature460: 748-752    
  5. Yang J, Benyamin B, McEvoy BP, Gordon S, Henders AK, Nyholt DR, Madden PA, Heath AC, Martin NG, Montgomery GW, Goddard ME, Visscher PM (2010). Common SNPs explain a large proportion of the heritability for human height. Nature Genetics 42:565-9.
  6. Yang J, Manolio TA, Pasquale LR, Boerwinkle E, Caporaso N, Cunningham JM, de Andrade M, Feenstra B, Feingold E, Hayes MG, Hill WG, Landi MT, Alonso A, Lettre G, Lin P, Ling H, Lowe W, Mathias RA, Melbye M, Pugh E, Cornelis MC, Weir BS, Goddard ME, Visscher PM (2011). Genome partitioning of genetic variation for complex traits using common SNPs. Nature Genetics 43:519-25.

Lab Members

Research Fellow Research Officer Research Assistant Postdoctoral Statistical Geneticist
Jian Yang Joseph Powell Anita Goldinger Gib Hemani
Allan McRae