Bowen Zhao dropped out of Beijing’s top high school to take a job at BGI-Shenzhen, the world’s largest DNA-sequencing organization. Soon after joining the company, he became involved in a new research effort: investigating the genetic basis of human cognitive abilities, including intelligence. “We want to know the genetic basis of IQ,” he says. Zhao thinks human intelligence is from 40 to 80 percent inheritable, and he wants to know which genes may influence the trait he calls “high cognitive ability.”
Zhao’s team is sequencing the DNA of more than 2,000 people with high IQs. Zhao is not looking for an IQ gene; rather, he expects to pinpoint multiple small variations in thousands of genes that shape the inheritable aspect of intelligence. Perhaps uniquely in the world, BGI has both the massive computing power and the manpower to handle a data–intensive approach to combing through the genetic clues. “We’re data driven, not hypothesis driven,” says Zhao.
The project involves sequencing more than six trillion DNA bases. This is not the first attempt to map the biological roots of human intelligence. But now, Zhao points out, DNA sequencing technology is so advanced that it’s possible to sequence and compare thousands of minute variations in extremely large samples.
Zhao is keenly aware that research into the heritability of intelligence is controversial and fraught with ethical dangers. But he says that it is far too early to make any decisions or judgments based on his genomic studies. For the foreseeable future, he adds, if you want to identify high-IQ individuals, it will be far easier and more accurate to conduct a standard IQ test than to sequence the person’s DNA.