China’s “Bio-Google” Hunts for Roots of Genius

At The Wall Street Journal, Gautam Naik details one of Chinese gene-sequencing firm BGI‘s current projects: a search for the genetic roots of exceptional intelligence, conducted together with Robert Plomin at King’s College London. According to Christina Larson’s recent profile of the budding “bio-Google”, the research would cost $15-20 million in the West, a sum that ethical reservations and uncertain results would likely place beyond reach. “Maybe it will work, maybe it won’t,” Plomin told Larson, “but BGI is doing it basically for free.”

“People have chosen to ignore the genetics of intelligence for a long time,” said Mr. Zhao, who hopes to publish his team’s initial findings this summer. “People believe it’s a controversial topic, especially in the West. That’s not the case in China,” where IQ studies are regarded more as a scientific challenge and therefore are easier to fund.

[…] But critics worry that genetic data related to IQ could easily be misconstrued—or misused. Research into the science of intelligence has been used in the past “to target particular racial groups or individuals and delegitimize them,” said Jeremy Gruber, president of the Council for Responsible Genetics, a watchdog group based in Cambridge, Mass. “I’d be very concerned that the reductionist and deterministic trends that still are very much present in the world of genetics would come to the fore in a project like this.”

Mr. Zhao is a phenomenon in his own right. In addition to his genetics wizardry, he says his near-fluent English is self-taught. His career as a geneticist began quite humbly—with the cucumber. In 2007, he skipped afternoon classes at his school in Beijing and started an internship at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences.

He cleaned test tubes and did other simple jobs. In return, the graduate students let him borrow genetics textbooks and participate in experiments, including the sequencing of the cucumber genome. Mr. Zhao was 15 years old; when the study of the cucumber genome was published in Nature Genetics in 2009, he was listed as a co-author.

BGI’s own site shows the range of its other projects, which in 2012 included work on bats, blood parasites, cloned sheep, cotton, goats, gut microbes, hepatitis B, maize, millet, obesity, oysters, pandas, watermelons and yaks.

Researchers at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, meanwhile, have isolated the genetic change responsible for some East Asian physical characteristics. From Nicholas Wade at The New York Times:

The traits — thicker hair shafts, more sweat glands, characteristically identified teeth and smaller breasts — are the result of a gene mutation that occurred about 35,000 years ago, the researchers have concluded.

The discovery explains a crucial juncture in the evolution of East Asians. But the method can also be applied to some 400 other sites on the human genome. The DNA changes at these sites, researchers believe, mark the turning points in recent human evolution as the populations on each continent diverged from one another.

[…] About 93 percent of Han Chinese carry the variant, as do about 70 percent of people in Japan and Thailand, and 60 to 90 percent of American Indians, a population descended from East Asians.