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Gene Sequencing Problems and Issues

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“Tracing the Roots of Intelligence - Brings More Harms than Goods”


BGI, or previously known as the Beijing Genomics Institute located in Shenzhen, China has leapt to the forefront of gene sequencing. This opportunistic organization had successfully completed numerous genome projects, such as sequencing 1% of the human genome for the International Human Genome project, decoded the SARS virus genome within 36 hours, fully sequenced the rice genome and chickpeas from 90 varieties. Apart from these projects, the BGI’s idea to underpin human gene encoded intelligence could bring a profound impact in genetic study by providing a detailed map of complex genetic material. However, this project also surrounds by the risks and controversy.

The project leader, Zhao Bowen tried to execute this study by using the blood-based DNA samples from local high school students. Unfortunately, his first attempt was impossible without parent consent. The visit made by Steve Hsu, to BGI in 2010 sparked collaboration between them. Stephen Hsu, a vice president for research at Michigan State University decided to use the saliva DNA samples collected from people gifted in mathematics and participants from mathematics or science Olympiad training camps. They tried to attract more highly intelligent peoples from the United States and other countries through a website. Those 500 volunteers just need to submit their Olympiad results and other standardized tests or diplomas from leading universities as the evidence of their intelligence.

Another 1,600 population samples were supplied from the previous research by Dr. Robert Plomin, a psychologist from King’s College, London. He has studied the genetics of intelligence since 1970s using the blood-based DNA samples of 1,600 individuals who joined the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY) the last four decades. Those participants possessed a great ability in mathematical and verbal-reasoning skills with intelligence quotient (IQ) of 160 or above, hence suitable for the BGI intelligence project. The genomes from the general population with average IQ of 100 was used as a control. The variation from this comparison will be used to segregate the hereditary factors of IQ. However, there are always both sides of coins in any scientific research which categorized as scientifically good or threatened.

Scientific Risk 1: Invalid and Unreliable Result

This project may produce invalid and misleading results if they used only 2,000 population samples. Small sample size in research will produce low confident result because it does not closely present the actual population size and characteristics. The study of this complex trait, on the other hands needs 10,000 of regular people just to find the first useful IQ gene. As in the case of height genes, the number of samples exceeded 10,000 for the scientists to sort out about 1000 genetic variations that partly explain why the height-related genes are not similar for each person. Those results are replicable and considered valid even the height trait is varied across the different nations and ethnic groups. The study of schizophrenia in 2009 seemed impossible with only 20,000 cases. But, the problem solved when the people who have been diagnosed with schizophrenia increase more than 40,000 (Lander, 2011).

A complex trait like intelligence is not only depends on a single gene but also affected by the environment, psychological factors and linked by various genes. Thus, selecting the volunteers based on the good performance in academics without considering about other variables is very questionable. Normal IQ variation is totally different compared with mental retardation syndromes because it is related to genetic variants with minute effects. The intellectual development disorder, on the other hand is the result of severe genetic defects. For instance, the autism is linked by different genes that affect social difficulties and gifted abilities in subjects like mathematics. This supports the fact that the intelligence trait is controlled by several genes and different people expressed these genes differently.

Genetic determinism such as environment also plays a significant role that might affect IQ during childhood where those children who live in negative and abusive environments developed intellectual slowly. However, this correlation reaches near to zero by late adolescence. The IQ correlation between strangers and biological siblings is near zero and 0.6, respectively. Meanwhile, the IQ correlation for adopted siblings is slightly higher than the strangers (Plomin, R et al., 2008). Monozygotic twins raised in different environments showed similar in IQ (0.74) and slightly higher than dizygotic twins raised in the same environment (0.6) (Plomin, R et al., 2001). BGI is aware with these biases and has stated that they just wanted to find the gene control the g factor and will not consider about other parameters that might influence the intelligence.

Scientific Risk 2: Misused of Data

There is a potential risk that the data from this research might be used by third-party to discredit, undermine or delegitimize certain individuals or ethnic groups. The relationship between intelligence and racism has a long history of debate. In the past, America used IQ test as a tool in its effort to eliminate certain groups from the country, especially Eastern and Southern European migrants as well as African Americans. In 1969, Arthur Robert Jensen, an educational psychologist at the University Of California published an article (Jensen A.R., 1969) with scandalous argument. He stated that genetic is the main factor for low IQ among the African American and it cannot be easily changed through educational programmes. In 2007, James Watson, the Nobel Laureate, ignited a serious debate when he proclaimed that black people were less intelligent compared to white people. The utilization of genetic testing by a member of the Hungarian parliament to prove his ethnic purity by the absence of based Roma or Jewish background is another simple example of racism and misused of data.

Many people are afraid that they might discriminate by their own genetic once the information is used for employment, education and insurance. Employers may evaluate the potential employees through a series of test, including intelligence test. Intelligence should not become a barrier to get the jobs. Employers should select the right applicants on the basis of their ability to do a job. The IQ test is also used as a part of educational programs in admission to the school and classifying the students. Honestly, students have a right to get a fair and equal education without totally depends on their genetic information. Besides, classifying the students based on their IQ score will limit the social mix.

Generally, the genetic testing has a strong relationship with medical use. However, it is still a big question whether this study has any medical benefit or not and the use of result from intelligence project in a medical context. Besides, the result can be manipulated for the profit of certain individual, groups or organization. For example, many spas and online sites used the result from nutrigenomic study and offered an unrealistic treatment. The test on telomeres to identify the cellular age was then used for fitness training and gene-based therapy. The problem is they did not have a deep understanding or knowledge related to human genetics. Thus, this will cause mislead in information and the public will receive invalid data.

Controversial Issues: Ethical Issues in Embryo Selection

The ability to identify intelligence may open the door for the embryo screening and selection. Screening and selecting of embryos with interested traits, including intelligence usually occurs during the pre-implantation stage. This project can be an ideal platform to identify children that will have learning trouble and assist them through several academic improvement programs. Apart from that, the result from this study can help the individual to recognize and explore their intelligence potential. Nevertheless, the pre-implantation genetic diagnosis and embryo selection will always raise the ethical issues and implications.

The embryo selection does make sense in medical aspect, as it turns to be an alternative way to prevent heritable genetic disease and future problems. For instance, sixty to ninety percent of women which their embryos diagnosed with Down’s syndrome decided to terminate their pregnancies (Natoli, J et al., 2012). The strong reasons behind this action are related to the capability of the children to survive in challenging society, avoid passing the defective genes in the next generation, do not want to gamble with the children’s future and due to the probability that this syndrome may come with other developmental disorders. However, it does not make sense to select the embryos based on the intelligence trait desired by parents which obviously does not associate with any medical harm if the IQ of their future babies is in the range of 100 to 145.

Another serious controversial issue behind BGI project arose when Geoffrey Miller, one of the participants in this human intelligence study claimed that China will use the finding to engineer babies with super intelligence trait. Therefore, they can potentially increase the intelligence in every generation by five to fifteen IQ points. There is a potency that China tries to execute eugenic breeding agenda using embryo selection to enhance the IQ point of its population and become the world’s leading country in every aspect. But this statement is arguable with the fact that most of the participants in the study were come from the United States, and not totally depends on the sample from Chinese people. Besides, this is just an academic study.

Does This Project Profitable?

This controversial project is so risky and might need a financial source of about $15 to $20 million to run. Nevertheless, the financial issue can be overcome as the project leader, Mr Zhao believes that IQ studies are classified as a credible scientific challenge and therefore easier to fund. This project gets half of the financial support from Shenzen government and the BGI agreed to sponsor another half of it. Unfortunately, the ability of this project to lead to the formation of a profitable biotechnology company is somewhat dubious. This is because, the previous researches with the same aim failed to yield promising results (Chabris et al., 2012). Besides, this project also takes a long time to publish the result. It was launched in August 2012 but until now, there is still no finding release by BGI. The biotechnology company depends on the genetic research to create products that can overcome the human diseases. Since the study on intelligence trait does not have any medical benefit, it is difficult to assume that it can generate profit in any biotechnological industry. Instead of spending money in cracking the genetic code of human intelligence that sparks a social controversy, it is much better to provide fund in some research that could brings medical benefits.


In a nutshell, the BGI project in finding the gene encoding the intelligence can give a brief summary about the biological mechanism behind the cognitive ability. However, I would disagree with this project since the disadvantages far outweigh the advantages. At first place, the aim of this research project is already drawing some idea about the eugenic scheme, the genetic inferior among the racial groups and the division in social class which might harm the world society. The result from this test may be used to blame the gene for intelligence in the individual rather than improve the teaching systems. Apart from that, the human intelligence is not solely depends on the genetic, but also depends on environment and other variables such as ambitions, competitive spirit and social skills. Ethically, it is right to do embryo selection in order to avoid life-threatening genetic disease or difficult life. Nevertheless, the answer is different if the parent chooses to terminate the pregnancy if the embryo possesses a normal IQ level. It stands to a reason that the project of finding intelligence gene needs a thorough examination in many aspects.

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