A 20-year-old wunderkind named Zhao Bowen has embarked on a challenging and potentially controversial quest: uncovering the genetics of intelligence. Mr. Zhao is a high-school dropout who has been described as China’s Bill Gates. He oversees the cognitive genomics lab at BGI (Beijing Genomics Institute), a private company that is partly funded by the Chinese government.
At the Hong Kong facility, more than 100 powerful gene-sequencing machines are deciphering about 2,200 DNA samples, reading off their 3.2 billion chemical base pairs one letter at a time. These are no ordinary DNA samples. Most come from some of America’s brightest people—extreme outliers in the intelligence sweepstakes.
The majority of the DNA samples come from people with IQs of 160 or higher. By comparison, average IQ in any population is set at 100. The average Nobel laureate registers at around 145. Only one in every 30,000 people is as smart as most of the participants in the Hong Kong project—and finding them was a quest of its own.
The plan, to compare the genomes of geniuses and people of ordinary intelligence, is scientifically risky (it’s likely that thousands of genes are involved) and somewhat controversial. For those reasons it would be very hard to find the $15 or $20 million needed to carry out the project in the West. “Maybe it will work, maybe it won’t,” Plomin says. “But BGI is doing it basically for free.”
Today only about 10 percent of BGI’s revenue comes from government projects—and that’s largely from local municipalities, not from Beijing. The rest is a mix of grants, some anonymous donations, and fees from clients, including as little as $3,000 to $4,000 to sequence a human genome.
In the spring of 2010, a theoretical physicist called Stephen Hsu from the University of Oregon visited BGI. Dr. Hsu was also interested in the genetics of cognitive ability, so the pair joined with other colleagues to launch the BGI intelligence project.
One part of the plan called for shifting to saliva-based DNA samples obtained from mathematically gifted people, including Chinese who had participated in mathematics or science Olympiad training camps.
Another involved the collection of DNA samples from high-IQ individuals from the U.S. and other countries, including those with extremely high SAT scores, and those with a doctorate in physics or math from an elite university. In addition, anyone could enroll via BGI’s website if they met the criteria.
The Shenzhen government agreed to pay for half the project, and BGI said it would pitch in the other half, says Mr. Zhao.
Most of the samples so far have come from outside of China. The main source is Dr. Plomin of King’s College, who for his own research had collected DNA samples from about 1,600 individuals whose IQs were off the charts. Those samples were obtained through a U.S. project known as the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth, now in its fourth decade.
Dr. Plomin tracked down 1,600 adults who had enrolled as kids in the U.S. project, now based at Vanderbilt University. Their DNA contributions make up the bulk of the BGI samples.
Dr. Hsu embarked on his own marketing drive. When giving science talks at various institutions, including the California Institute of Technology, Taiwan’s Academy of Science and Google, he exhorted listeners to sign up for the study.
BGI’s website has so far attracted about 500 qualifying volunteers.
The scientific challenge is significant. Consider the genetics of height, which, like intelligence, is a complex trait governed by many different genes, each one with a tiny influence.
Attempts to find height-related genes didn’t yield any reliable hits until the number of DNA samples exceeded 10,000. By studying more and more samples, scientists have now identified about 1,000 genetic variations that partly explain why some people are taller than others. Those results are replicable—and they hold true whether a person is from Iceland or Japan.
By comparison, one of the biggest genomic investigations of IQ attempted so far involves only about 5,000 people drawn from the general population.
Scientist say that tens of thousands of regular people would have to be studied just to find the first useful IQ gene.
That’s where BGI’s genomic deep dive comes in. The team will compare the genomes of 2,200 high-IQ individuals with the genomes of several thousand people drawn randomly from the general population. Because most of the supersmart participants being studied are the cognitive equivalent of people “who are 6-foot-9-inches tall,” says Dr. Hsu, it should be much easier to identify many key IQ-related factors in their genomes. (Dr. Hsu is now vice president for research and graduate studies at Michigan State University.)
“The genetic basis of intelligence has been ignored for a very long time,” says Mr. Zhao. “Our data will be ready in three months’ time.” [now two months as the WSJ article was from Feb 15, 2013]
The IQ study isn’t the only mega-project under way. With a U.S. nonprofit, Autism Speaks, BGI is being paid to sequence the DNA of up to 10,000 people from families with autistic children. For researchers in Denmark, BGI is decoding the genomes of 3,000 obese people and 3,000 lean ones.
Decoding Human Genomes in Bulk
BGI’s rise is regarded with curiosity and some trepidation, not just because of the organization’s size but also because of its opportunistic business approach (it has a center for pig cloning, dabbles in stem-cell research, and runs a diagnostics lab). The institute employs 4,000 people, as many as a midsize university—1,000 in its bioinformatics division alone. Like Zhao, most are young—the average age is 27—and some sleep in company dormitories. The average salary is $1,500 a month.
It’s also pioneered a research-for-hire business to decode human genomes in bulk, taking orders from the world’s top drug companies and universities. Last year, BGI even started to install satellite labs inside foreign research centers and staff them with Chinese technicians.
BGI-Shenzhen, once known as the Beijing Genomics Institute, has burst from relative obscurity to become the world’s most prolific sequencer of human, plant, and animal DNA. In 2010, with the aid of a $1.58 billion line of credit from China Development Bank, BGI purchased 128 state-of-the-art DNA sequencing machines for about $500,000 apiece. It now owns 156 sequencers from several manufacturers and accounts for some 10 to 20 percent of all DNA data produced globally. So far, it claims to have completely sequenced some 50,000 human genomes—far more than any other group.
Schematic of the external factors (yellow) and interrelated components that mediate cognition.
Human enhancement technologies (HET) are techniques that can be used not simply for treating illness and disability, but also for enhancing human characteristics and capacities. In some circles, the expression “human enhancement technologies” is synonymous with emerging technologies or converging technologies. In other circles, the expression “human enhancement” is roughly synonymous with human genetic engineering, it is used most often to refer to the general application of the convergence of nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and cognitive science (NBIC) to improve human performance. [Wikipedia]
SOURCE – Wall Street Journal, Technology Review, Wikipedia