Published on February 19th, 20130
New disclosures about Chinese controversial project that reveals the secret of people with extraordinary intelligence
In a former printing house in Hong Kong, a brilliant young 20 year old named Zhao Bowen started a difficult task that may give rise to unprecedented controversy: identifying the genetic basis of intelligence.
Zhao is known as “China’s Bill Gates“, giving the school still in high school, like multimillionaire. Now, the young gifted cognitive genomic coordinates department within BGI, a private company funded in part by the Chinese government.
In the former printing house in Hong Kong are now over 100 genomic sequencing machines sophisticated working on deciphering of 2,200 DNA samples, examining in turn each of the 3.2 billion nitrogenous bases that make up a sample. All these DNA samples share one important aspect: they were collected from the smartest people in America.
Most DNA samples from persons with an IQ higher than 160. For comparison, the average IQ in the world population is 100. In contrast, the average IQ of Nobel laureates is about 145. Experts estimate that only one person in 30,000 has an intellect comparable to BGI project participants and identify them was a difficult task.
“People have long chosen to ignore genetic aspects of intelligence”, said Zhao. “Many believe that this topic is controversial, especially in the West. This view is widespread in China”, said Zhao. In this Asian country, IQ studies are considered a scientific challenge, making it much easier to get funding for research than in Western countries. Zhao expects to publish the first results this summer.
The origin of intelligence is a mystery. Studies conducted so far by scientists shows that at least half of the variation in IQ is inherited. Researchers have identified several genes that may significantly reduce IQ (eg, those affecting people with mental retardation), but major genes affecting normal variation in IQ have not yet been discovered.
Hong Kong scientists hope to solve this problem by comparing the genomes of people with an IQ extraordinarily large genomes ordinary people. By studying the changes between the two groups, scientists hope to identify some of the factors underlying hereditary intelligence.
The researchers’ findings could lead to development of a genetic test that is used to predict a person inherited cognitive ability. Such a tool could be very useful, but can also lead to unprecedented controversy.
“If we can identify early children who have trouble learning, we intervene early in their lives with the help of special educational programs or other methods“, explained Robert Plomin, a professor of behavioral genetics at King’s College, London, one of the experts involved in this project.
Some critics fear that genetic data on IQ could be misunderstood or used for abusive purposes. “Studies on the scientific basis of intelligence have been used in the past to target certain groups of people based on race or certain individuals and to de-legitimize these people“, said Jeremy Gruber, President of the Council for Responsible Genetics, an NGO based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “I would be very worried if reductionist and deterministic trends still present in genetics would come out in a project of this kind“, said Gruber.
Zhao, coordinator of this project is itself a gifted person. Beyond his skills in genetics, the young man learned to speak flawless English without the help of a teacher. Began his career as a geneticist bottom: from a cucumber. In 2007, the young man began to chiulească afternoon at his high school courses in Beijing and working as an intern at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences.
Initially, Zhao clears the tubes and other simple tasks. As a reward, students let him borrow books from genomic and participate in experiments, including genome sequencing cucumber. Zhao was 15 in 2009 when the cucumber genome sequencing describing the research was published in the scientific journal Nature Genetics. His name is found on the list of coauthors.
Intrigued by genomics, Zhao quit school and began working full time at BGI, one of the leading genomics research centers in the world, located in Shenzhen, near Hong Kong. The following year, BGI has established a special unit heads of genomic cognitive and named him director Zhao.
The first effort of Zhao in this area was to develop a plan aimed to study the DNA of high school children in the city who were achievers in school. The plan failed. “Parents have agreed to blood sampling from their children“, said Zhao. Blood samples are the most effective method of collecting DNA samples.
In spring 2010, the center was visited BSI Stephen Hsu, a theoretical physicist at the University of Oregon. Dr. Hsu also showed interest in his genetic basis of cognitive ability, so that the two researchers have turned to other professionals and have established this project dedicated to studying intelligence.
Part of the plan was to abandon efforts to collect samples of blood and saliva samples adopting standard DNA collection. Subsequently, the project members have collected these samples from people very good at math, including the Chinese, who participated in the Olympics dedicated to mathematics and science.
Subsequently, researchers collected DNA samples from people with high IQ in the U.S. and other countries, including donors being one people with doctorates in physics and mathematics from elite universities. Then, anyone can register on the website BGI if they meet several criteria.
Shenzhen authorities agreed to finance half of the project, followed BGI to support the other half.
Most samples collected so far are from overseas. An important source was Dr. Plomin of King’s College, who own research samples collected for DNA from 1,600 people with IQ’s unusual. The samples were obtained in a project known American Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth, which is now in its fourth decade of operation. Dr. Plomin has identified 1,600 adults enrolled in the project when they were children and collected DNA samples from them. Their DNA is now a significant part of the sample stock held by BGI.
Dr. Hsu has helped turn this effort. Whenever a lecture at a major institution such as California Institute of Technology, Academy of Sciences of Taiwan or Google, Dr. Hsu encourage participants to enroll in the study. So far, BGI website attracted 500 volunteers who met the criteria set by the researchers.
Scientific challenge is a great one. To understand the effort required experts as examples the genetic basis of height, which, like intelligence, is a complex trait influenced by many genes, each of which has a minor role.
Efforts to identify genes underlying height were unsuccessful until the number of DNA samples analyzed did not exceed 10,000. Studying increasing number of samples, the scientists were able to identify approximately 1,000 genetic variations which partly explains why some people are taller than others. These results can be reproduced and is available regardless of whether a person is in Iceland, in Romania or Japan.
Instead, the biggest scientific effort to identify the genetic basis of IQ conducted so far was based on only 5,000 ordinary people. Specialists say that it needs to be studied tens of thousands of people to identify a single gene with influence on IQ.
For this reason, BGI has developed this project. Researchers will compare the genomes of 2,200 people with high IQ to genomes obtained from several thousand people at random from the general population. Because most people are super study “the equivalent of 2.20 meters individuals,” explains Dr. Hsu would be much easier to identify the factors in the genome that play a role in IQ.
“Genetic basis of intelligence have been ignored too long. Our data will be ready in three months”, Zhao concluded.