Searching for ‘Genius Genes’ by Sequencing the Super-Smart

  • Brainchild of a high-school dropout
  • Joined by two renowned Professors in the USA and UK
  • Enabled by the world’s most powerful sequencing facility
  • Jonathan Rothberg to do same for math ability 


Before plunging into this post, those of you who follow college basketball are eagerly awaiting the start of “March Madness” and its “bracketology” for predicting all the winners, with odds of 1-in-9.2 quintillion—that’s nine followed by 18 zeros—and is why Warren Buffet will almost certainly not have to pay out the $1 billion he offered for doing so.

The following short story of how basketball came about is worth a quick read before getting to this posting’s DNA sequencing projects, which are not “madness” but definitely long-shot bets—and criticized by some. 

The original 1891 "Basket Ball" court in Springfield College used a peach basket attached to the wall (taken from Wikipedia).

The original 1891 “Basket Ball” court in Springfield College used a peach basket attached to the wall (taken from Wikipedia).

James Naismith (1861 – 1939) was a Canadian American sports coach and innovator. He invented the sport of basketball in 1891 and wrote the original basketball rulebook. At Springfield College, Naismith struggled with a rowdy class which was confined to indoor games throughout the harsh New England winter and thus was perpetually short-tempered. Under orders from Dr. Luther Gulick, head of Springfield College Physical Education, Naismith was given 14 days to create an indoor game that would provide an “athletic distraction.” Gulick demanded that it would not take up much room, could help its track athletes to keep in shape and explicitly emphasized to “make it fair for all players and not too rough.” Naismith did so using the actual “basket and ball” pictured below.

SNPs and GWAS assist in finding the roots of intelligence

Many studies indicate that intelligence is heritable, but to what extent is yet uncertain (taken from the Wall Street Journal via Bing Images).

Many studies indicate that intelligence is heritable, but to what extent is yet uncertain (taken from the Wall Street Journal via Bing Images).

Many of you are well aware of—if not actually involved in—the use of DNA sequence analysis to identify common single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) that are associated with diseases or traits in a study population, relative to a normal control population. Examples of these genome-wide association studies (GWAS) included and were principally enabled in the 1990s by high-density “SNP chips” developed by Affymetrix and then Agilent. While technically straightforward, there’s a lot of genetics and not-so-simple statistics to deal with in designing GWAS and—especially—properly interpreting the results.

In the future, Junior’s DNA sequence could implicate other reasons for his failing academic performance, e.g. not studying enough (taken from via Bing Images).

In the future, Junior’s DNA sequence could implicate other reasons for his failing academic performance, e.g. not studying enough (taken from via Bing Images).

Now, following the advent of massively parallel “next generation” sequencing (NGS) platforms from Illumina and Life Technologies, whole genomes of larger populations (i.e. “many” 1,000s of individuals) can be studied, and less common (aka rare) SNPs can be sought. All of this has fueled pursuit of more challenging—and controversial—GWAS.

So it is the following two ongoing stories that I’ve referred to as the search for genius genes. One conceived by Bowen Zhao—a teenaged Chinese high-school dropout—aiming to find the roots of intelligence in our DNA by sequencing the “off-the-chart” super-smarties, and a newer project by Jonathan Rothberg—über-famous founder of Ion Torrent, which commercialized the game-changing semiconductor-sequencing technology acquired for mega millions by Life Tech—aimed at identifying the roots of mathematical ability by, need I say, Ion Torrent sequencing.

From Chinese high-school dropout to founder of a Cognitive Genomics Unit

It’s a gross understatement to say that Mr. Bowen Zhao is an interesting person—he’s actually an amazing person. As a 13 year old in 2007, he skipped afternoon classes at his school in Beijing and managed to get an internship at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences where he cleaned test tubes and did other simple jobs. In return, the graduate students let him borrow genetics textbooks and participate in experiments, including the sequencing of the cucumber genome. When the study of the cucumber genome was published in Nature Genetics in 2009, Mr. Zhao was listed as a co-author at the age of 15.

Tantalized by genomics, Mr. Zhao quit school and began to work full-time at BGI Shenzhen (near Hong Kong), one of the largest genomics research centers in the world. BGI (formerly known as the Beijing Genomics Institute) is a private company—partly funded by the Chinese government—that significantly expanded its sequencing throughput last year by acquiring Complete Genomics of Mountain View, California.

Mr. Bowen Zhao is a young researcher with amazing accomplishments (taken from via Bing Images)

Mr. Bowen Zhao is a young researcher with amazing accomplishments (taken from via Bing Images)

The BGI project is sequencing DNA from IQ outliers comparable to Einstein (taken from via Bing Images).

The BGI project is sequencing DNA from IQ outliers comparable to Einstein (taken from via Bing Images).

In 2010, BGI founded the Cognitive Genomics Unit and named Mr. Zhao as its Director of Bioinformatics. The Cognitive Genomics Unit seeks to better understand human cognition with the goal of identifying the genes that influence intelligence. Mr. Zhao and his team are currently using more than 100 state-of-the-art next generation sequencers to decipher some 2,200 DNA samples from some of brightest people in the world—extreme IQ outliers. The majority of the DNA samples come from people with IQs of 160 or higher, which puts them at the same level as Einstein. By comparison, average IQ in any population is set at 100, and the average Nobel laureate registers at around 145. Only one in every 30,000 people (0.003%) would qualify to participate in the BGI project.

In an article by Gautam Naik of the Wall Street Journal, Mr. Zhao is quoted as saying that “people have chosen to ignore the genetics of intelligence for a long time.” Mr. Zhao, who hopes to publish his team’s initial findings this year, added that “people believe it’s a controversial topic, especially in the West [but] that’s not the case in China,” where IQ studies are regarded more as a scientific challenge and therefore are easier to fund.

According to Naik, the roots of intelligence are a mystery, and studies show that at least half of IQ variation is inherited. While scientists have identified some genes that can significantly lower IQ—in people afflicted with mental retardation, for example—truly important genes that affect normal IQ variation have yet to be pinned down.

The BGI researchers hope to crack the problem by comparing the genomes of super-high-IQ individuals with the genomes of people drawn from the general population. By studying the variation in the two groups, they hope to isolate some of the hereditary factors behind IQ. Their conclusions could lay the groundwork for a genetic test to predict a person’s inherited cognitive ability. Although such a tool could be useful, it also might be divisive.

“If you can identify kids who are going to have trouble learning, you can intervene” early on in their lives, through special schooling or other programs, says Robert Plomin, Professor of Behavioral Genetics at King’s College, London, who is involved in the BGI project and quoted by Naik.

Critics, however, worry that genetic data related to IQ could easily be misconstrued—or misused. Research into the science of intelligence has been used in the past “to target particular racial groups or individuals and delegitimize them,” said Jeremy Gruber, President of the Council for Responsible Genetics, a watchdog group based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “I’d be very concerned that the reductionist and deterministic trends that still are very much present in the world of genetics would come to the fore in a project like this,” Gruber added.

Obtaining access to ‘genius genes’ wasn’t easy

Getting DNA to sequence from super-smart people was easier said than done. According to Naik, Zhao’s first foray into the genetics of intelligence was a plan to collect DNA from high-achieving kids at local high schools. It didn’t work. “Parents were afraid [of giving consent] because their children’s blood would be taken,” Zhao told Naik.

In the spring of 2010, Stephen Hsu—a theoretical physicist from the University of Oregon (now at Michigan State University) who was also interested in the genetics of cognitive ability—visited BGI and joined Zhao to launch the BGI intelligence project. One part of the plan called for shifting to saliva-based DNA samples obtained from mathematically gifted people, including Chinese who had participated in mathematics or science Olympiad training camps. Another involved the collection of DNA samples from high-IQ individuals from the U.S. and other countries, including those with extremely high SAT scores, and those with a doctorate in physics or math from an elite university. In addition, anyone could enroll via BGI’s website—if they met the criteria—as have about 500 qualifying volunteers to date.

Interestingly, most of the samples so far have come from outside of China. The main source is Prof. Plomin of King’s College, who for his own research had collected DNA samples from about 1,600 individuals whose IQs were off the charts. Those samples were obtained through a U.S. project known as the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth, now in its fourth decade. Dr. Plomin tracked down 1,600 adults who had enrolled as kids in the U.S. project, now based at Vanderbilt University. Their DNA contributions make up the bulk of the BGI samples.

Frequently asked questions about the BGI intelligence project, as well as a link to the detailed project proposal, can be read by clicking here. The penultimate and last paragraphs of the introductory section of this proposal are the following:

The brain evolved to deal with a complex, information-rich environment. The blueprint of the brain is contained in our DNA, although brain development is a complicated process in which interactions with the environment play an important role. Nevertheless, in almost all cases a significant portion of cognitive or behavioral variability in humans is found to be heritable—i.e., attributable to genetic causes.

The goal of the BGI Cognitive Genomics Lab (CGL) is to investigate the genetic architecture of human cognition: the genomic locations, allele frequencies, and average effects of the precise DNA variants affecting variability in perceptual and cognitive processes. This document outlines the CGL’s proposal to investigate one trait in particular: general intelligence or general mental ability, often referred to a “g.”

On Jan 1st 2014, I contacted Prof. Hsu, who coauthored BGI’s “g” proposal, and asked him to clarify whether genome sequencing was in fact being used, as opposed to SNP genotyping chips that were specified in the aforementioned proposal’s Materials and Methods section. I also inquired as to whether any results have been published. His reply on the same day was that the “initial plan was SNPs but [was] upgraded to sequencing. No results yet.”

Stay tuned.

Jonathan Rothberg’s ‘Project Einstein’ taps 400 top mathematicians

In the October 31st 2013 issue of Nature, Erika Check Hayden reported on ‘Project Einstein,’ Ion Torrent founder/inventor/serial entrepreneur Jonathan Rothberg’s new venture aimed at identifying the genetic roots of math genius.

Jonathan Rothberg, founder of CuraGen, 454 Life Sciences, Ion Torrent, Rothberg Center for Childhood diseases, and RainDance Technologies (taken from via Bing Images).

Jonathan Rothberg, founder of CuraGen, 454 Life Sciences, Ion Torrent, Rothberg Center for Childhood diseases, and RainDance Technologies (taken from via Bing Images).

According to Check Hayden’s news article, Rothberg and physicist/author Max Tegmark at MIT in Cambridge, “will be wading into a field fraught with controversy” by enrolling about 400 mathematicians and theoretical physicists from top-ranked US universities in ‘Project Einstein’ to sequence the participants genomes using Ion Torrent machines that Rothberg developed. Critics claim that the study population, like BGI’s “g” project, is too small to yield meaningful results for such complex traits. Check Hayden adds that “some are concerned about ethical issues. If the projects find genetic markers for math ability, these could be used as a basis for the selective abortion of fetuses or in choosing between embryos created through in vitro fertilization.” She says that Rothberg is pushing ahead, and quotes him as stating, “I’m not at all concerned about the critics.”

On the positive side, Prof. Plomin mentioned above in BGI project “g” is said to believe that there is no reason why genome sequencing won’t work for math ability. To support this position, Plomin refers to his 2013 publication entitled Literacy and numeracy are more heritable than intelligence in primary school, which indicates that as much as two-thirds of a child’s mathematical aptitude seems to be influenced by genes.

I’ll be keeping tabs on the project to see how it progresses and how the ethics issue plays out.

Genetics of intelligence is complex and has foiled attempts at deciphering

After reading about the scientifically controversial aspects of both project “g” and ‘Project Einstein,’ I became curious about the outcomes of previous attempts to decipher the genetic basis of intelligence. There was way too much literature to delve into deeply, but a 2013 New Scientist article by Debora MacKenzie entitled ‘Intelligence genes’ evade detection in largest study is worth paraphrasing, as it distills out some simplified takeaways from the referenced study by Koellinger and 200 (!) collaborators published in Science.

  • This team of researchers assembled 54 sets of data on more than 126,000 people who had their genomes analyzed for 2.5 million common SNPs, and for whom information was available on length and level of education. Study organizer Koellinger admits that educational achievement is only a rough proxy for intelligence, but this information was available for the requisite large number of people.
  • Three SNPs from 100,000 people correlated significantly with educational achievement, and were tested against SNPs from the other 26,000 people. The same correlations held, replicating the first analysis. However, the strength of the correlations for each SNP accounted for at most 0.002% of the total variation in educational attainment.
  • “Probably thousands of SNPs are involved, each with an effect so small we need a much larger sample to see it,” says Koellinger. Either that, or intelligence is affected to a greater degree than other heritable traits by genetic variations beyond these SNPs—perhaps rare mutations or interactions between genes.
  • Robert Plomin adds that whole genome sequencing, as being done by BGI, allows researchers to “look for sequence variations of every kind.” Then, the missing genes for intelligence may finally be found, concludes MacKenzie.

Parting Thoughts 

Most, if not all of you, will agree with the contention that a human being is not merely a slave to his or her genes. After all, hasn’t determinism been swept away by the broom of quantum mechanical probabilities as a physical basis of free will? If so, then what role does inherited genetics actually play in intelligence? While the answer to this rhetorical question is obviously not simple, and still hotly debated, I found my thoughts to be largely reflected by a posting at Rose Mary School paraphrased as follows, keeping in mind that all analogies are imperfect:

Human life has been compared to a game of cards. At birth, every person is dealt a hand of cards—i.e., his or her genetic make-up. Some receive a good hand, others a less good one. Success in any game, however, is almost always a matter of education, learning, and culture. For sure, there are often certain innate qualities that will give one person an advantage over another in a specific game. However, without having learned the game and without regular and rigorous practice, nobody will ever become a champion at any game. In the same way the outcome of the game of life is not solely determined by the quality of a person’s initial hand of cards, but also by the way in which he or she takes part in the game of life. His or hers ability to take part in the game of life satisfactorily, perhaps even successfully, will be determined to a very large extent by the quality and quantity of education that he or she has enjoyed.

When I gave advice to students, as a teacher, it was very simple and what I did—and still do—myself: “study hard, work harder, and success will follow.”

As always, your comments are welcomed.

5 thoughts on “Searching for ‘Genius Genes’ by Sequencing the Super-Smart

  1. If you want to find genes that will be beneficial, this approach will give the most bang for the buck.

    Because intelligence is so polygenic, studying a normal population will turn up only the genes you mentioned that have a very small contribution to intelligence. But there might be rare genes associated with high genius – like we have seen for other polygenic traits such as strength. These will be found in a population like the one being used in this study.

  2. I do not think that embryo selection based on “intelligence” genes would have any measurable success. Intelligence and altruism are complex traits and result from interaction of many genes, same as height that could not be accurately predicted based on existing genetic screens. Time-separated twinning guided by IQ of grown up co-twins can have significantly higher predictive power of an unborn child intelligence based on previously reported IQ .heritability in the range of 70-85%. Perhaps these two projects would provide some clues to the landscape of intelligence with massive “missing heritability” being encountered, same as for other complex diseases such as diabetes type 2 and Autism.

  3. Great blog! Another approach would be sequence trio populations. If parents are average or below average in math ability or intelligence and kids are above average then looking for de novo changes might simplify the association. This could also be applied for other traits such as financial or artistic success. Bill Gates and his parents. Zuckerberg and his parents and so on. The old argument of “nature versus nurture” still applies, of course.

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