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Genome-wide association studies in human populations have facilitated the creation of genomic profiles which combine the effects of many associated genetic variants to predict risk of disease. The area under the receiver operator characteristic (ROC) curve is a well established measure for determining the efficacy of tests in correctly classifying diseased and non-diseased individuals. We use quantitative genetics theory to provide insight into the genetic interpretation of the area under the ROC curve (AUC) when the test classifier is a predictor of genetic risk. Even when the proportion of genetic variance explained by the test is 100%, there is a maximum value for AUC that depends on the genetic epidemiology of the disease, i.e. either the sibling recurrence risk or heritability and disease prevalence. We derive an equation relating maximum AUC to heritability and disease prevalence. The expression can be reversed to calculate the proportion of genetic variance explained given AUC, disease prevalence, and heritability. We use published estimates of disease prevalence and sibling recurrence risk for 17 complex genetic diseases to calculate the proportion of genetic variance that a test must explain to achieve AUC = 0.75; this varied from 0.10 to 0.74. We provide a genetic interpretation of AUC for use with predictors of genetic risk based on genomic profiles. We provide a strategy to estimate proportion of genetic variance explained on the liability scale from estimates of AUC, disease prevalence, and heritability (or sibling recurrence risk) available as an online calculator.

Original publication




Journal article


PLoS genetics

Publication Date





Genetic Epidemiology and Queensland Statistical Genetics, Queensland Institute of Medical Research, Brisbane, Australia.


Humans, Macular Degeneration, Disease, Prevalence, Area Under Curve, ROC Curve, Gene Expression Profiling, Inheritance Patterns, Genome, Human, Aged, 80 and over