In the world of genomics, Chinese biotech giant BGI is big and getting bigger. The firm agreed to purchase Bay Area juggernaut Complete Genomics for a bargain basement $117 million in 2012.
BGI owns 156 DNA sequencers and produces 10% to 20% of the world’s genetic information. Now the firm is putting their DNA sequencing might behind an investigation into the genetics of genius.
Suitably, one of BGI’s homegrown savants, 20-year-old Zhao Bowen, will head up the study. According to his bio, Zhao dropped out of high school to join BGI “after a startlingly productive internship contributing to BGI’s cucumber sequencing project.” His smart gene study promises to be a bit more challenging.
According to the Wall Street Journal, 1,600 of the study’s 2,200 genomes were provided by Dr. Robert Plomin of King’s College, London. Plomin collected the DNA of individuals with IQs over 160 (average IQ is said to be around 100) who had previously participated in a program called the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth. BGI signed up another 500 on their website. (The WSJ doesn’t account for the remaining 100.)
Zhao’s team is already busy sequencing the genomes and optimistically says they’ll be done in three months. The team will compare their genius genomes to a random selection of the population to see if they can isolate differences between the two.
Will they find anything useful? The WSJ compares the study to the genetics of height which depends on “1,000 genetic variations that partly explain why some people are taller than others.” It took 10,000 genomes for scientists to see results. If the genetic determinants of height are subtle and complicated, intelligence must be out of the ballpark, down at the pub, mumbling into a pint of ale.
BGI very clearly gets all this stuff. They know it’s a difficult and controversial topic. Sections of their FAQ read like a financial services disclaimer. “We do not claim that our study design is capable of identifying all g-associated alleles given enough participants, let alone all loci linked with other components of intelligence; or that g is a perfect measurement of intelligence, brain health, etc. We simply wish to start the process of discovery, and believe that this is a good place to begin.”
And maybe that’s enough for now. It’ll be fascinating, and probably controversial, when the team announces their findings. After all, if someone thinks they’ve found the genes behind intelligence—what then will they do with that information?