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Physicist, Startup Founder, Blogger, Dad

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

China: genomics without political correctness

A reader in Argentina recommends the following article about genomics in China.

Economist: ... with the delivery of 120 spanking new top-of-the-range Illumina sequencing machines. When they have all been installed the building will, so it is claimed, have more DNA-sequencing capacity than the whole of the United States.

... The building belongs to the BGI, once known as the Beijing Genomics Institute. Mr Wong manages the institute’s Hong Kong operation, but the institute itself is based over the border in the People’s Republic proper, in Shenzhen. The BGI itself is one part—arguably the leading one—of China’s effort to show that it can be the scientific peer of the West.

Its boss, Yang Huangming, is certainly the peer of people like Dr Venter, Dr Lander and Dr Collins. He is a man on a mission to make the BGI the first global genomics operation. Part of the reason for building his newest sequencing centre in Hong Kong is to reassure researchers from other countries that the facility will operate inside a reliable legal framework. If all goes well, laboratories in North America and Europe will follow.

... The BGI was the first outfit to clone pigs, and it has developed a new and more effective way of cloning mammals that might ultimately be applied to humans, if that were ever permitted.

But the organisation is involved in even more controversial projects. It is about to embark on a search for the genetic underpinning of intelligence. Two thousand Chinese schoolchildren will have 2,000 of their protein-coding genes sampled, and the results correlated with their test scores at school. Though it will cover less than a tenth of the total number of protein-coding genes, it will be the largest-scale examination to date of the idea that differences between individuals’ intelligence scores are partly due to differences in their DNA.

Dr Yang is also candid about the possibility of the 1,000-genome project revealing systematic geographical differences in human genetics—or, to put it politically incorrectly, racial differences. The differences that have come to light so far are not in sensitive areas such as intelligence. But if his study of schoolchildren does find genes that help control intelligence, a comparison with the results of the 1,000-genome project will be only a mouse-click away.


Of course an almost equally interesting question is when will the Chinese start producing their own successors to the Illumina sequencers?

6 comments:

Yan Shen said...

The lack of political correctness in China is one of its few genuine strengths. I've always felt that political correctness and religious fundamentalism were the two biggest problems confronting American society, neither of which really exist in China.

botti said...

The Economist seems to now be acknowledging the potential for these controversial findings. Late last year they had an article by Geoffrey Miller about the 'Looming Crisis in Human Genetics'. And in this latest edition they have this suggestion for how to handle awkward findings:

"Genomics may reveal that humans really are brothers and sisters under the skin. The species is young, so there has been little time for differences to evolve. Politically, that would be good news. It may turn out, however, that some differences both between and within groups are quite marked. If those differences are in sensitive traits like personality or intelligence, real trouble could ensue.

People must be prepared for this possibility, and ready to resist the excesses of racialism, nationalism and eugenics that some are bound to propose in response. That will not be easy. The liberal answer is to respect people as individuals, regardless of the genetic hand that they have been dealt. Genetic knowledge, however awkward, does not change that."

http://www.economist.com/node/16377289

steve hsu said...

Better late than never :-)

http://infoproc.blogspot.com/2007/01/metric-on-space-of-genomes-and.html

"Finally, it is important to note that group differences are statistical in nature and do not imply anything about particular individuals. Rather than rely on the scientifically unsupported claim that we are all equal, it would be better to emphasize that we all have inalienable human rights regardless of our abilities or genetic makeup."

Chuck said...

I happen to see China's ethnic homogeneity as a strength. I guess that not politically correct to think in the liberal multicultural post-national West. But there is something to say about a people who have a sense of shared past and destiny -- as fabricated as those senses might be. No one denies that, as a group, Jews do well -- but somehow when it comes to larger groups of people social cohesion and ethnic identity is meaningless. Maybe my impression of the situation is incorrect.

46656 said...

"Finally, it is important to note that group differences are statistical in nature and do not imply anything about particular individuals. Rather than rely on the scientifically unsupported claim that we are all equal, it would be better to emphasize that we all have inalienable human rights regardless of our abilities or genetic makeup."

There's something off about the wording. Minor quibbles really.

"Rather than rely on the scientifically unsupported claim that we are all equal .." Equal? Science isn't in the business of disproving equality, nor do differences between individuals or group make some more equal than others.

Alex said...

The problem is that racists are able to understand statistics, so they will justify racism by saying "60% of blacks are nearly mentally retarded" or something like that and hence judge individuals this way. There's also the problem that with IQ being at least partially genetically determined throws the idea of meritocracy completely out of the window since regardless of how effort someone with low IQ can make, they may never be able to catch up someone with IQ, and hence be permanently poor through no fault of their own and with no way out. High IQ seems to be the mayor factor determining the success of individuals in modern society.

I hope advances in gene therapy can finally let us get rid of the genetic lottery without having to kill embryos or even worse, limit freedoms of people with low IQ as many racists advocate (it would also mean people would stop complaining about leftist policies being dysgenic).

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