What makes smart people smart? The general consensus among studies conducted over the last 100 years is that 75 percent of what determines an individual’s IQ is coded somewhere in their DNA. For scientists, it’s now just a matter of figuring out which genes make people geniuses.
It’s a task that Stephen Hsu, a theoretical physicist and the vice president of research at Michigan State University, and China-based BGI (formerly Beijing Genetics Institute) are taking on.
The team, informally called the BGI intelligence project, is in the process of sequencing genes from more than 2,000 volunteers with 160 and up IQs and plans to publish its first findings on the genetic commonalities between incredibly smart people this summer.
“There are likely up to 10,000 different genetic variations that determine someone’s IQ, but if we detect just one thing that’s statistically significant, it’ll be a modest first step—but in a way—a milestone,” Hsu told Inc. He predicted that scientists will probably figure out the rest of what genetically makes someone smart within a decade.
"We're headed for a Brave New World or something like Gattaca," Hsu said. "Every country will have to decide what its laws will be, but the technology will definitely be there. It's just a question of which of the countries will take control of their genetic future."
The reason for such a “bold” prediction, he said, is because the advances in the technology that companies—such as BGI—use have made the cost of sequencing a human genome much cheaper. The first complete map of the human genome, completed by the Human Genome Project in 2003, cost around $3 billion dollars. BGI can now complete one for roughly $3,000.
This intelligence project began when Hsu approached the BGI in 2010 with an idea for uncovering what genes make smart people smart. He now serves as a scientific adviser to the institute, which has made a concerted effort to begin producing its own original research, according to Hsu.
If the genetics of intelligence are similar to something like the genetics of height, which the BGI team suspects it is, it would mean that humans are predisposed towards being intelligent, but are often thwarted by genes that work against their IQ. And while the intent of intelligence project is not to produce baby geniuses, it may eventually allow scientists to do so by providing them with the roadmap to target and counteract the genes that hold intelligence back.
According to Hsu, people with 160-plus IQs are around four standard deviations of intelligence above the average of the population. Generational geniuses, such as Albert Einstein, are likely six standard deviations of intelligence above the average of the population. And according to Hsu, if scientists can figure out how to flip off all of the genes that detract from intelligence—called deleterious genes—they could, in theory, engineer human beings whose IQs are 30 standard deviations above the average.
“We’re headed for a Brave New World or something like Gattaca,” Hsu said. “Every country will have to decide what its laws will be, but the technology will definitely be there. It’s just a question of which of the countries will take control of their genetic future.”
A Brave New World
BGI, which is based out Shenzhen, China, has built a business primarily around completing sequencing work outsourced from universities and pharmaceutical companies. According to a profile by the MIT Technology Review, BGI used a $1.58 billion line of credit from the China Development Bank in 2010 to buy 128 state-of-the-art DNA sequencing machines, which cost roughly $500,000 each. Since its founding in 1999, it’s amassed 4,000 workers—many of whom have advanced degrees—and pays them, on average, the equivalent of $18,000 a year.
In its first year, it was lucky to have been awarded 1 percent of the work associated with the Human Genome Project, and now, according to Hsu, it’s by far the largest creator of genetic data in the world, having produced 10 to 20 percent of all of the world’s genetic data (including 50,000 human genomes).
For the future, Zhang Yong, a senior researcher at BGI, told the Review that the company hopes to eventually become the “bio-Google,” the organization that will “organize all of the world’s biological information and make it universally accessible and useful.” The Review named BGI one of the 50 Disruptive Companies of 2013 this past February.