Jonathan Rothberg is on the hunt for the genes that code for mathematical prowess. He 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 vitrofertilization, says Curtis McMullen. A mathematician at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a 1998 winner of the prestigious Fields Medal, McMullen was asked to participate in Project Einstein and declined.
Rothberg is pushing ahead. “I’m not at all concerned about the critics,” he says, adding that he does not think such rare genetic traits could be useful in selecting for smarter babies. Influenced by a college class he took from a pioneer in artificial intelligence, and by the diagnosis of his daughter with tuberous sclerosis complex, a disease that can cause mental retardation and autism, Rothberg has long been interested in cognition. He is also in awe of the abilities of famous scientists. “Einstein said ‘the most incomprehensible thing about the Universe is that it is comprehensible’,” he says. “I’d love to find the genes that make the Universe comprehensible.”