A Chinese company is pioneering the technology to let parents pick their smartest embryo

The pick of the embryo litter?
The pick of the embryo litter?
Image: Reuters/China Daily
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No one knows what genes make people smart. But the chance to figure that out is just kind of hanging there: 50-80% of what determines IQ is thought to be inherited.

Shenzhen-based BGI is seizing that opportunity. Its cognitive genomics division is mapping the genes (pdf) of math geniuses. Researchers will then compare those against a sample from the general population, isolating which genes turn people into string theory whizzes.

This could, in theory, be used to predict an embryo’s intelligence. Though BGI’s CG unit doesn’t do genetic testing of human embryos or in vitro fertilization, other divisions of BGI do. If CG’s research bears fruit, it could—again, in theory—let parents select the smartest embryo to give birth to.

Most children are within 13 IQ points of their parents’ combined average. Two or three out of every hundred children turns out way smarter, though, as Stephen Hsu, a CG lab member, told Wired. Creating a bunch of embryos raises the possibility of generating a sperm-egg combo that creates a super-smart baby.

That creeps out many Western scientists (paywall), as the Wall Street Journal reported last year. ”People believe it’s a controversial topic, especially in the West. That’s not the case in China,” Bowen Zhao, head of CG, told the WSJ. (There are others who feel differently, including a King’s College professor who is cooperating with CG.)

How smarts are distributed according to BGI’s cognitive genomics unit.
How smarts are distributed according to BGI’s cognitive genomics unit.

Another source of Western discomfort on the topic is the Chinese state’s potential involvement (China Development Bank, a state bank that lends to government pet projects, has given BGI $1.5 billion). The company’s CG site vows that ”no data will be turned over to any government entity, particularly not the Chinese government.” Elsewhere, however, Hsu said he expects full sequencing of 1 million people to be “paid for by science agencies of national governments” (pdf download, p.58), without specifying what those might be.

But as CG’s Hsu envisions it, it’s regular people—not governments—that will embrace this technology.

“Imagine what a couple might pay to ensure that they get the best out of 10 or 50 possible offspring, optimizing over their choice of heritable attributes,” he wrote on his blog, comparing the cost of a Harvard degree or private school with the few thousand dollars it takes to fertilize and implant embryos.

In a way, the US is already dabbling with this technology. A private lab in New Jersey allows couples to screen embryos for genetic diseases before implanting, reports Slate. The same sort of thing could happen with brain disorders. As BGI’s Chris Chang told The New Yorker, CG’s research could help us understand the genetic underpinnings of Alzheimer’s or schizophrenia (paywall).

But sparing a baby from disease is different from picking Einsteins out of petri dishes so you can scrimp on Harvard tuition. Those ethical objections  about eugenics would very probably prompt many governments to ban embryo selection procedures—a move that would ultimately be self-defeating, says CG’s Hsu.

“There are going to be countries that say this is part of our national health-care service and everyone is doing it,” he told the New Yorker. “And eventually it would become unstoppable, because the countries that initially outlawed it would have to come around. How could they not?”