In a shabby compound in Shenzhen, Southern China, a team of scientists from the Beijing Genomics Institute are trying to decode the genes that make people intelligent, as documented in the Times and Wall Street Journal.
Led by school dropout, turned prodigal genetic engineer Zhao Bowen, the state-funded institute has samples of DNA from 2,000 certified geniuses and is trying to deduce what sets them apart, at a genetic level, from the proletariat. It's also sequencing DNA from plants and animals at a terrific rate: six terabytes of data per day.
In the time it takes to read this blog, Bowen's team will have mapped another human genome at a cost of $3,000. Compare this to the first mapping of a human genome ten years ago, which took several years and $3bn, and the rate of progress is staggering.
Bowen's work has attracted controversy but he sees it as simply another brick in the pyramid of knowledge. His view is that science is neither good nor bad; it is simply the process of finding the truth. The good or bad comes from how the science is applied. He confirms that China is not trying to breed geniuses and that the best way to produce bright children is still to have two bright parents. Even if genes that promote high IQ can be identified, there is a huge variety of factors, both genetic, physical, and environmental, that have to align for a child to be exceptionally gifted.
There is a warning in this for all of us in the business of science against making the science sound better than it is to promote a business case. Bowen fears that, based on his research, companies will falsely claim to be able to produce genetically-engineered genius-IQ children to exploit the dreams of aspiring parents. Realistically, the most radical output from the institute might be a test to determine a baby's IQ from the womb in the early stages of pregnancy. Bowen sees this as progress, but it raises ethical concerns. Could we - and more importantly, should we - set an IQ benchmark to determine whether or not a foetus is taken to term?
Will genetic sequencing of babies eventually become the norm? Bowen thinks so. The benefits for identification and treatment of genetic weaknesses or diseases from birth (or before) are clear; but there is a danger in the potential for pre-birth discrimination against a foetus based on its genetic make-up.
Bowen's view is that technology needs to keep advancing for us to progress. He says: "Technology is just something invented after you were born. A wheel is not technology anymore. That doesn't mean it's not important, it just becomes part of our lives. Sequencing will be like the wheel."
Authored by Neil Hardman
Photo credit: Ynse