Objective. Lumbar disc degeneration (LDD) is a serious social and medical problem which has been shown to be highly heritable. It has similarities with peripheral joint osteoarthritis (OA) in terms of both epidemiology and pathologic processes. A few known genetic variants have been identified using a candidate gene approach, but many more are thought to exist. GDF5 is a gene whose variants have been shown to play a role in skeletal height as well as predisposing to peripheral joint OA. In vitro, the gene product growth differentiation factor 5 has been shown to promote growth and repair of animal disc. This study was undertaken to investigate whether the GDF5 gene plays a role in LDD. Methods. We investigated whether the 5' upstream single-nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) variant rs143383 was associated with LDD, using plain radiography and magnetic resonance imaging to identify disc space narrowing and osteophytes, in 5 population cohorts from Northern Europe. Results. An association between LDD and the SNP rs143383 was identified in women, with the same risk allele as in knee and hip OA (odds ratio 1.72 [95% confidence interval 1.15-2.57], P = 0.008). Conclusion. Our findings in 5 population cohorts from Northern Europe indicate that a variant in the GDF5 gene is a risk factor for LDD in women. Many more such variants are predicted to exist, but this result highlights the growth and differentiation cellular pathway as a possible route to a better understanding of the process behind lumbar disc degeneration.