A Genetic Code for Genius?

Gautam Naik, Wall Street Journal, February 15, 2013

At a former paper-printing factory in Hong Kong, 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, 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.

“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.

The roots of intelligence are a mystery. Studies show that at least half of the variation in intelligence quotient, or IQ, is inherited. {snip}

The Hong Kong researchers hope to crack the problem by comparing the genomes of super-high-IQ individuals with the genomes of people drawn from the general population. By studying the variation in the two groups, they hope to isolate some of the hereditary factors behind IQ.

Their conclusions could lay the groundwork for a genetic test to predict a person’s inherited cognitive ability. {snip}

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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. {snip}

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The Shenzen 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.

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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.”

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