The study found that any large variations between a pupil’s grasp of different academic disciplines was likely to be down their upbringing and environment rather than genetics.
Academics insisted that “life experience” was important when it came to making children and young adults better at one subject over the other.
It appears to dispel the common myth that children grow up with some sort of innate ability to succeed in either literacy or numeracy.
The discovery – by academics from Oxford, University College London and King’s College London – was made as part of an analysis of children from almost 2,800 British families.
Twins and unrelated children aged 12 were tested for reading comprehension and fluency before answering maths questions based on the national curriculum.
The results were compared with DNA data to show to the extent to which genetics appeared to influence performance in exams.
Researchers said that a “substantial proportion of the observed correlation in reading and mathematics abilities is due to genetics”, adding: “The factors that lead to differences in an individual’s abilities – or disabilities – are relatively more likely to be environmental.”
Robert Plomin, professor of behavioural genetics at King’s, who has advised the Coalition on education policy, said it was the first time that academics had been able to “estimate genetic influence on learning ability using DNA alone”.
He insisted the study did not “point to specific genes linked to literacy or numeracy” but suggested that genetics played a major part in influencing learning abilities and common disorders such as dyslexia and dyscalculia.
Prof Plomin, who gave a presentation to the Department for Education on genetics last year, added: “Finding such strong genetic influence does not mean that there is nothing we can do if a child finds learning difficult – heritability does not imply that anything is set in stone – it just means it may take more effort from parents, schools and teachers to bring the child up to speed.”
The use of genetic research in education is seen as controversial amid fears it will be used to write some children off as failures at an early stage.
But its supporters insist it proves that children are not simply “blank slates”, allowing education to be tailored to children’s individual needs, rather than being delivered in a one-size-fits-all way.
Dr Oliver Davis, from UCL’s department of genetics, evolution and environment, said the latest analysis showed that “similar collections of subtle DNA differences are important for reading and maths”, adding: “However, it’s also clear just how important our life experience is in making us better at one or the other. It’s this complex interplay of nature and nurture as we grow up that shapes who we are.”
Dr Chris Spencer, from the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics at Oxford University, said the findings could have applications in other areas.
He said the study used DNA analysis to “help investigate the overlap in the genetic component of reading and maths ability in children”, adding: “Interestingly, the same method can be applied to pretty much any human trait, for example to identify new links between diseases and disorders, or the way in which people respond to treatments.”