Chinese Scientists, “Genius Genes,” and the Future of Genomics

Posted by Jessica Cussins January 7, 2014
Biopolitical Times
The Gene Factory,” an article out earlier this week in The New Yorker, carries the subtitle, “A Chinese firm’s bid to crack hunger, illness, evolution – and the genetics of human intelligence.”

That firm is BGI, formerly known as Beijing Genomics Institute, a company with 4,000 employees working in a humble eight-story former shoe factory in Shenzhen, China. BGI single-handedly produces over a quarter of the world’s genomic data; it has sequenced over 57,000 people as well as many varieties of plants and animals.  And it has no intention of slowing down. As New Yorker writer Michael Specter reports,
The company says the data will help explain the origins and the evolution of humanity, improve our average life span by five years, increase global food production by ten per cent, decode half of all genetic disease, understand the origins of autism, and cut birth defects by fifty per cent.
BGI’s immense, tireless sequencing (and labor) power enables it to undertake work about which other researchers can only dream. At least at the moment, BGI is eager to share its findings. When a deadly strain of E. coli bacteria appeared in Germany in 2011, BGI researchers managed to sequence the bacterial genome in just three days. They live-tweeted their work as it unfolded and made the final data entirely public. This novel approach produced results from researchers around the world that helped prevent a deadly outbreak.

BGI was formerly an affiliate of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, but in the words of its president, was “kicked out” for its “crazy” ideas. That’s when the company really began to flourish. After getting its bearings with minimal research on the Human Genome Project, BGI now has sequencing facilities all over the world, and says it will offer whole genome sequencing for less than a thousand dollars by the end of next year.

But many of the recent headlines about BGI have been about just one of its efforts, which it describes as a relatively small one: the Cognitive Genomics project, which aims to uncover the genetic basis of intelligence by poring through the genomes of thousands of people with extremely high I.Q.s. The project is of course controversial because of how often biological definitions of intelligence have been used to validate problematic and often horrific policies and practices.

Historically, biological explanations for human “fitness” or “superiority” have always been based on what is considered the best science of the time. But it’s likely that complex behavioral traits like intelligence will never be “found” in our genomes; studies so far have produced incredibly limited results.

BGI knows it is treading in socially and ethically treacherous waters with its intelligence project. A BGI press representative told Specter multiple times, without being prompted, that the company would never engage in eugenics. But a number of the researchers involved, including Stephen Hsu, a vice-president for research and graduate studies at Michigan State University, are explicit about what the findings of the project could do to “improve” human reproduction. They seem to welcome the prospect of a real-world Gattaca, in which embryos are extensively screened and carefully selected (and genetically manipulated, as Hsu envisions) prior to implantation.

BGI intends to be a trail-blazer with this project and in the field of genomics in general. Its managers have taken the attitude that their critics will come around when they see their results. Even if that’s not the case, BGI simply may not care. Jian Wang, the company’s president, told Specter,
In the United States and in the West, you have a certain way. You feel you are advanced and you are the best. Blah, blah, blah. You follow all these rules and have all these protocols and laws and regulations. You need somebody to change it. To blow it up. For the last five hundred years, you have been leading the way with innovation. We are no longer interested in following.
The BGI profile in The New Yorker follows a flurry of media attention in early 2013 to the company and its Cognitive Genomics project, with articles in the Wall Street Journal, MIT Technology Review, Business Week, and Financial Times. In February, project leader Zhao Bowen promised that "Our data will be ready in three months' time." In other words, we haven’t heard the last of BGI or “genius genes.”

For more on BGI, as depicted in a documentary film from The Netherlands, check back with Biopolitical Times next week.

Previously on Biopolitical Times: