BEIJING — When he was 17, Zhao Bowen was a bored student who made an audacious decision. In a country where the cult of diplomas knows no boundaries, he quit school and decided not to take the exam that would have allowed him university entry.
“All that fuss just to learn things that you can find in books or on the Internet anyway? I had better things to do,” he explains, with a laugh.
Starting at 15, Bowen spent his free time hanging out with a team of scientists who were sequencing the genome of the cucumber. “Genetics. Now that's a fascinating thing,” Bowen says.
The previous summer, he had completed an internship with geneticists from the Beijing Genomics Institute, the largest biotechnology institute in the world. They didn’t have any use for diplomas either. As soon as they spotted an exceptionally gifted young person, they offered him what no university could: a job in an extremely well-equipped lab working on an advanced research topic.
Now 21, a bespectacled Bowen looks no different than other young Chinese men of his age. But his business card reads “Director of the Cognitive Genomics Center,” a laboratory with a budget of several million dollars. Bowen’s mission is to sequence the genome of little prodigies like him to find the genetic roots of genius.
He’s been working on it for four years, leading a team of several hundred young researchers. “Studies on twins and adopted children indicate that at least 50% of IQ variation is due to genetics,” he claims. “But which genes are involved, and which part of the genome? We don’t know. We’re going to find all the genes related to intelligence.”
He knows the enormity of the task. A recent Dutch study on the level of academic success had to review no fewer than 125,000 genomes to find just three associated variants. Those interested in IQ genetics have to study the mutations that may affect some 10,000 genome segments. To locate just one of those, an analysis has to include an incredibly high number of individuals, perhaps as many as a million.
Thanks to the collaboration of two researchers (one British and one American), Bowen’s team obtained the DNA of 2,500 pure geniuses whose IQs are over 160. As a comparison, the average human IQ is 100 and that of Nobel prize winners is around 145.
The sequencing is said to be in its advanced stages. “Nobody has such a large sample, and nobody has ever done such work,” says Steve Hsu, the American physician who is collaborating on the project.
Bowen, though, keeps his feet firmly on the ground. “We still have to compare these extraordinary genomes to a control group of randomly selected people,” he says. “We’re certain that with enough material we’ll find at least part of the genes that influence IQ.”
Wang Jian, president of the Beijing Genomics Institute, is confident that this research will soon lead to a genetic test, enabling, among other things, families who resort to in vitro fertilization to select the most “intelligent” embryos. With this method, the average IQ of the population would rise over the long term.
Ethics debates are rare and touchy in China, so while it awaits the results to be published, the Beijing Genomics Institute tries not to communicate on the topic. Bowen, however, has continued speaking freely to the press. “We are in possession today of a formidable tool that could take human knowledge one big step further. And we shouldn’t use it?” he asks.
He says the genome is much more than a sediment of inherited features. It’s an operative system that controls how our cells, our brains and our bodies function. “Understanding genius is just the beginning,” he says. “The goal is to understand our ‘normal’ functioning, to find our ‘source code’. We will then be in a position where we better understand disabilities like autism and schizophrenia.”
The prestigious MIT Technology Review believes in this promise. In the past, it has honored among its “individuals whose superb technical work promises to change the world” the future giants would go on to create Google and Facebook.
Last year, Bowen was one of them.