Friday, June 20, 2014

REPRODUCTIVE MEDICINE: China in quest for genius genes

At a Behavior Genetics Association meeting in Edinburgh in the summer of 2012, University of New Mexico associate professor Geoffrey Miller met a university professor who told him he was searching for “geniuses” willing to participate in a project to find genes that determine intelligence.

Miller, 48, immediately became interested in the Chinese project, which sought to gather 2,000 geniuses from around the world.

The university professor that Miller met was one of the key members of the project team at BGI, the former Beijing Genomics Institute, the world's largest genetic analysis firm, which has its headquarters in China.

This company was founded in 1999 when China joined an international project to map the entire human genome. At the time, its board of directors included members of government research facilities, but it was later privatized in 2007. It has a staff of 5,000, and has presented a series of research papers in top European and U.S. scientific journals on topics including an analysis of the relationship between genes and illness.

Miller is an evolutionary psychologist. He had an interest in the connection between intelligence and genetics.

He browsed the project's website, and found there were certain requirements that applicants needed to meet: high marks in aptitude tests for entering an American university or graduate school; an excellent result in a mathematics or physics olympiad; and a doctorate in physics, mathematics or computer science. It also explicitly stated the necessary scores. Miller fulfilled all the conditions.

He signed a statement confirming his participation in the project and e-mailed it to the organizers, then was sent a kit for collecting saliva that would be used to analyze his genes. He sent off his sample and officially became a project participant. The organizers also asked him for his IQ. More than 90 percent of people have IQs between 70 and 130, but Miller says his is 150.

Human intelligence is largely determined by environment and education. However, the influence of genetics to a certain degree has been discovered in a study that followed identical twins with the same genetic code, and in other research. Even so, it is thought that a complicated array of several hundred or more genes are involved, and the actual mechanism is not well understood. There have been other quests to discover intelligence genes to date, but BGI's sweeping study of “2,000 geniuses” is unprecedented.

However, as Miller looked into China's history of population policy, such as its famous “one-child policy” and its view of reproductive medicine, he began to have misgivings about the project.

“Potentially, the results would allow all Chinese couples to maximize the intelligence of their offspring by selecting among their own fertilized eggs for the one or two that include the highest likelihood of the highest intelligence.”

This is an age when couples can undergo in vitro fertilization, have the genetic characteristics of each fertilized egg examined, and choose the one that conforms most to their preferences. In the future, if “genius” genes are discovered, it would be possible to select one in vitro fertilized egg with the most likelihood of producing a child with a high IQ.

“This method of 'preimplantation embryo selection' might allow IQs within every Chinese family to increase by 5 to 15 IQ points per generation,” says Miller. “After a couple of generations, it would be 'game over' for Western global competitiveness."

In 2013, he contributed an article to U.S. online literary magazine Edge with the title “Chinese Eugenics.” It stirred up controversy, and Miller was interviewed by international news magazine Vice about his vision of genius Chinese babies bred through genetic manipulation.

What is the truth of the matter?

In March, BGI executives visited Japan to attend a study report meeting regarding genes and medicine at the University of Tokyo. When asked for an interview, Jun Wang, a director of the BGI group, responded in a forceful tone.

“Western media reports take a biased view," he says. "Our study is about the connection between IQ scores and genes, and it will also help explore the workings of the human brain and understanding human diseases. This is not something to make a superman. Genius genes are not the scientific goal of our study.”

Xun Xu, BGI executive director at the research division, also categorically denied Miller's claims. “Genetic mechanisms aren't that simple. The idea of creating a superman is utterly unrealistic.”

Attempts have been made in the past to create child prodigies. There was businessman Robert Klark Graham's Repository for Germinal Choice, also known as the “Nobel Prize winner's sperm bank,” which existed in the United States in the 1980s and 1990s. According to the book “The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank,” more than 200 children were born with its help, and some developed IQs of 180.

“For the moment, we seek advantages through drugs and classes and tutors, but we will use genes as soon as we can,” says the book's author, American journalist David Plotz. “The repository's notion that good sperm will make good children is too crude for our age, but more sophisticated science is coming.”

Children born according to their parents' preferences regarding intelligence, looks, physical ability and other factors are described as “designer babies.” At for-profit sperm banks, prospective recipients can take into account the height, eye and hair color of donors, as well as their IQ, academic record and health condition. In the United States, there are clinics that make it possible for parents to choose the gender of their child by examining the DNA of in vitro fertilized eggs.

As of May this year, BGI's genius gene project is still seeking participants. Its findings have yet to be announced.

Miller is also waiting for the results to be released.

“Even if the Chinese state doesn’t promote this eugenics, there’s so much demand among Chinese parents that the private sector could do most of what the state could do anyway," he says. "Once the research findings are published, Americans would be free to use them. Japanese firms could also use them, right?”

(This article was written by Shiro Namekata and Ryoko Takeishi.)

The Asahi Shimbun


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