Genetic Future

CNN reports:

At the Chongqing Children’s Palace, experts are hoping to revolutionize child-rearing with the help of science. About 30 children aged 3 to 12 years old and their parents are participating in a new program that uses DNA testing to identify genetic gifts and predict the future.

The test is conducted by the Shanghai Biochip Corporation. Scientists claim a simple saliva swab collects as many as 10,000 cells that enable them to isolate eleven different genes. By taking a closer look at the genetic codes, they say they can extract information about a child’s IQ, emotional control, focus, memory, athletic ability and more.

“For basketball, we can test for height and other factors,” said Dr. Huang Xinhua, a leading scientist on the project. “We also test listening ability so that can tell us if (the child) might be talented at music.” [my emphasis]

A quick note for any Chinese parents considering having this test performed on their children: you’re wasting your money (and we’re not talking small change – the test costs US$880). 
The genetic variants that are currently known to affect traits such as athletic performance and height explain only a tiny fraction of the variation in these traits, so predictions made from genetic tests are extremely weak. In fact, for a trait such as height, parents can make substantially better predictions simply by measuring their own height than they can using the best that modern genetics has to offer. 
Eleven genes could only ever capture  a tiny fraction of the variants affecting these traits; and it’s also worth noting that the vast majority of genetic research into complex traits has been done in Europeans, making predictions in East Asians (where the genetic architecture is likely to differ non-trivially) very problematic.
The company’s claims are frankly absurd:

Dr. Huang said the testing can even help project careers down the road. 

Examining one child’s results, he told CNN: “This child is very thoughtful and focused, so I suggest she go into management.”

There are no convincing, predictive associations between genetic variants and “thoughtfulness” – this is a scam, pure and simple, preying on parents’ willingness to believe in the power of science and to pay through the nose for anything they think might give their child an extra edge.
Unlike a lot of commentators on this story, I’ve got nothing fundamentally against the idea of using genetics to make predictions about a child’s future, and on guiding the activities a child engages in based on those predictions. Here’s the thing, though: this only makes sense if the predictions are both accurate and relevant, and right now the predictions from genetics regarding complex traits are neither. Parents should save their money for more useful ways to enrich their children’s lives.
It will be very interesting to see how the differing cultural mores in China and other East Asian countries shape the adoption of direct-to-consumer genetic testing in the region; I think most of us expect that these countries will be far less squeamish than the West about taking full advantage of genetic information. That makes East Asia an extremely attractive target for all manner of DTC genetic testing companies.
As an example, I was recently pointed to this Chinese copy of personal genomics company 23andMe. Here are two screenshots comparing the Chinese version with the actual 23andMe site:
i-ec1561e6afb8706616d7532553cfe361-mygene23.jpg
i-596b794ac2842f2cf8769d7346cbcdee-mygene-23andme.jpg

Comments

  1. #1 fx
    August 6, 2009

    Whether it’s a scam or wishful thinking, at least you don’t see political correctness that plagues this country.
    Whether you like it or now, future genetics may well be what is described in Gattaca, once more genes, SNP’s and their confounding effects are better understood in the future.

  2. #2 Mthson
    August 7, 2009

    If a world with gene therapy like Gattaca means a 50% increase in the average per capita contribution to GDP, I’m all for it.

  3. #3 Misha
    August 9, 2009

    I’m going to brush up on my Mandarin.

  4. #4 Estetik klinikleri
    August 11, 2009

    IQ is not only related factor for emotional control

  5. #5 Shawn
    November 20, 2009

    http://www.mygene23.com seems to attract a lot of eyeballs. Personal Genetic Service is a huge market, which nobody will deny.

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