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BGI Hunts for Genetic Links to High IQ

The Wall Street Journal reports that China's BGI is sequencing around 2,200 samples of individuals with high IQ in order to identify genes associated with intelligence.

The project is sequencing the genomes of people with IQs of 160 or higher. As the WSJ notes, "the average Nobel laureate registers at around 145." These genomes will be compared with sequences from the general population in the hope of identifying genes linked to high IQ. The scientists expect to have results in three months.

BGI's Zhao Bowen, who is leading the project, acknowledges that the genetics of intelligence is a "controversial topic" in the West, but says "that's not the case in China," where the Shenzhen government is paying for half the project and BGI the other half.

Most of the samples have come from a project led by Robert Plomin, a professor of behavioral genetics at King's College, London, who has collected DNA samples from around 1,600 individuals through a US project called the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth.

It's worth questioning whether several thousand genomes will be sufficient to identify genes associated with a complex trait like intelligence. As the article notes, citing height as an example, "attempts to find height-related genes didn't yield any reliable hits until the number of DNA samples exceeded 10,000."

However, Stephen Hsu from Michigan State University, a collaborator on the project, tells the WSJ that the fact that the scientists are studying an extreme phenotype — IQs over 160 — will serve as a shortcut for finding intelligence-related genes.

Most of the participants in the study are the cognitive equivalent of people "who are 6-foot-9-inches tall," Hsu says, making it relatively easy to identify IQ-related genes.

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