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Not So Smart?

Chinese sequencing giant BGI is trying to identify the genes responsible for genius, but, writes Ed Yong this week in Nature, not everyone is sure the project is such a smart idea.

Led by Stephen Hsu — a theoretical physicist from Michigan State University and scientific adviser to BGI — and King's College London geneticist Robert Plomin, the effort will examine the genomes of 2,100 high-IQ individuals with the aim of identifying variants linked to extreme intelligence.

As Yong notes, inquiries into the genetic underpinnings of intelligence commonly generate controversy. However, in this case, the criticisms are aimed not so much at the scientists' line of inquiry as the project's experimental design.

In particular, outside researchers are raising concerns about the study's small sample size, Yong reports, citing Harvard University geneticist Daniel McArthur, who suggests that "if the genetics of intelligence are similar to those of schizophrenia or height... the team needs at least 10,000 cases and 10,000 controls."

These sample size issues could prove even more of a challenge if high IQ stems not from a number of variants but from a small number of rare mutations, adds Trinity College Dublin researcher Kevin Mitchell.

And even with a more substantial sample set, the effort would be something of a long shot, University of Queensland geneticist Peter Visscher says.

"Even for human height, where you have samples of hundreds of thousands, the prediction you'd get for a newborn person isn't very accurate," he tells Yong. "That will be true for IQ for a long time to come."