China Pushing the Envelope on Science, and Sometimes Ethics

John Pomfret, Washington Post, June 28, 2010

Last year, Zhao Bowen was part of a team that cracked the genetic code of the cucumber. These days, he’s probing the genetic basis for human IQ.

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Unburdened by social and legal constraints common in the West, China’s trailblazing scientists are also pushing the limits of ethics and principle as they create a new–and to many, worrisome–Wild West in the Far East.

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In 2007, Chinese geneticists discovered vast differences in the genetic makeup of Africans, Asians and Caucasians. They will soon report a breakthrough showing why some people–such as Tibetans–can live effortlessly at high altitudes while others can’t.

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Inside the 11-story facility, the vibe is pure Silicon Valley start-up: shorts, flip-flops, ankle bracelets, designer eyewear and a random tattoo. Zhao came to BGI on a summer internship last year to work on cucumbers. Now afull-time employee while continuing his studies, Zhao is turning his attention to a topic Western researchers have shied away from because of ethical worries: Zhao plans to study the genes of 1,000 of his best-performing classmates at a top high school in Beijing and compare them, he said, “with1,000 normal kids.”

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