What is Zhao Bowen's IQ

The BGI leadership knows that the resistance to their expansion efforts is considerable, but considers it unfounded. If the BGI were really a tool in Beijing, the employees joke, one would have to have much nicer rooms than the open-plan offices divided by partition walls. Bioinformatics head Xu says a bit more objectively about the US takeover: Complete Genomics offers "good technology, the company is bankrupt. We see a good opportunity in this". BGI President Wang also appeased: The main goal is to do work that is socially useful - you simply want to "do good". The BGI wants to make a major contribution to the development of a worldwide "Bio-Google", ie to "organize all biological information in the world and make it generally accessible and usable". But a comparison with the Internet giant also shows that what sounds good doesn't necessarily have to be good. For Wang, however, the worries are completely unfounded: "We like science. We need money. So we bring the two together," he says. He is also not bothered by the fact that the main business of the BGI is more quantity than quality, as he told the journal "Nature".

Indeed, in its scientific work, the BGI acts more as an implementer of other people's ideas. For example, in a project that Steve Hsu, Research Director at Michigan State University, came up with: He wants to find out which genes have an influence on intelligence. Under the direction of the school dropout Zhao Bowen, the BGI is now in the process of sequencing the DNA of more than 2000 highly gifted people - mostly test subjects from the USA.

Most of the DNA comes from a collection of blood samples collected by Robert Plomin, a psychologist at King's College, London. The plan is to compare the genomes of these geniuses and those of people with average IQs. This is scientifically controversial and risky: Thousands of genes are likely to have an influence, but many do not develop their effects without sufficient stimulation. In the western world, it would have been very difficult to find the necessary $ 15 to 20 million. "Maybe it will work, maybe not," says Robert Plomin. "In any case, the BGI does it almost free of charge." In his opinion, the reason is that it has more sequencing capacity than it can utilize. "They have all these machines and people who want to be fed with projects," he says.

The IQ study is not the only current mega-project. Together with the US non-profit organization "Autism Speaks", the BGI is currently examining the DNA of up to 10,000 people from families with autistic children. And for researchers from Denmark, the Chinese decode the genomes of 3,000 fat and 3,000 slim people. In addition to such basic research, the BGI positions itself as the engine for the expected boom in the medical use of genome scans. In 2011, for example, it set up a DNA analysis center at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Ten bioinformatics experts were flown in from Shenzhen; after six months the center opened with five sequencing machines. The clinic can now offer the sequencing service to parents of children with unexplained diseases.

The BGI receives a fee for each deciphered genome. "They have the expertise, the equipment, and the economies of scale," says Robert Doms, the hospital's chief pathologist. However, it remains to be seen whether the high-flying plans of the BGI will also work financially. After all, the center doesn't just have to repay the state loan for the sequencing machines. Expenses are also rising steadily. The chemicals required for sequencing must be paid for, and the data stored, analyzed and interpreted.

The BGI machines deliver six terabytes of data per day. At the same time, prices on the genome market are falling. Even BGI scientists reckon that the cost of a genome will drop to between $ 200 and $ 300 within the next ten years. Then the masses have to bring the money. However, if the expected boom does not materialize, and if millions of people decide against having their health prospects read from their genetic makeup, the BGI is likely to have a serious problem.

When this comes up, Wang grins and sings a few lines from Bobby McFerrin's song "Don't worry, be happy". The wall near his desk is decorated with an autographed letter from Bill Gates. In it, the Microsoft founder announces a partnership on agricultural genetic research between the BGI and the Gates Foundation, which was decided last autumn. "He loves college dropouts," says Wang. And thinks: We'll make it. (bsc)

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