Multi-millionaire funds gene sequencing to find genes for Mathematical Genius

Jonathan Rothberg founded two genetic-sequencing companies and sold them for hundreds of millions of dollars. He helped to sequence the genomes of a Neanderthal man and James Watson, who co-discovered DNA’s double helix. Now, entrepreneur Jonathan Rothberg has set his sights on another milestone: finding the genes that underlie mathematical genius.

Rothberg and physicist Max Tegmark, who is based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, have enrolled about 400 mathematicians and theoretical physicists from top-ranked US universities in a study dubbed ‘Project Einstein’. They plan to sequence the participants’ genomes using the Ion Torrent machine that Rothberg developed.

The team will be wading into a field fraught with controversy. Critics have assailed similar projects, such as one at the BGI (formerly the Beijing Genomics Institute) in Shenzhen, China, that is sequencing the genomes of 1,600 people identified as mathematically precocious children in the 1970s. The critics say that the sizes of these studies are too small to yield meaningful results for such complex traits. And some are concerned about ethical issues. If the projects find genetic markers for maths ability, these could be used as a basis for the selective abortion of fetuses or in choosing between embryos created through in vitro fertilization

Dune is classic Science Fiction whcih has Mentats. Mentats are humans trained to mimic computers: human minds developed to staggering heights of cognitive and analytical ability.

Scientists have used the technique to sift for genes that influence medical conditions such as high blood pressure and bone loss. Some behavioural geneticists, such as Robert Plomin at King’s College London, who is involved with the BGI project, say that there is no reason that this same approach won’t work for maths ability. As much as two-thirds of a child’s mathematical aptitude seems to be influenced by genes

The Rothberg Institute for Childhood Diseases, Rothberg’s private foundation based in Guilford, Connecticut, is the study’s sponsor. But Rothberg won’t say who is funding the project, which other geneticists estimate will cost at least US$1 million. Some speculate that Rothberg is funding it himself. In 2001, Fortune estimated his net worth to be $168 million, and that was before he sold the sequencing companies he founded — 454 Life Sciences and Ion Torrent, both based in Connecticut — for a combined total of $880 million.

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