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The Gene Factory

Publication Date: 
January 06, 2014
The New Yorker
Michael Specter

Professor Hank Greely comments on the future of embryo selection in China and the United States as the process becomes simpler for The New York.

The twenty-mile drive from Hong Kong International Airport to the center of Shenzhen, in southern China, can take hours. There is customs to negotiate and a border to cross, but they aren’t the problem; the problem is the furious pace of commerce between the former British colony and one of the fastest-growing cities in the world. Trucks, cars, vans, and buses cram the roadways, ferrying laborers of all kinds at all times. Until the nineteen-eighties, when Deng Xiaoping designated the area as China’s first special economic zone, Shenzhen had been a tiny fishing village. Suddenly, eleven million people appeared, seemingly out of nowhere; factories sprang up, often housed in hastily constructed tower blocks.

Thirty years ago, there were a few guesthouses and little else. Today, a visitor can stay at the Four Seasons or the Ritz, shop for ten-thousand-dollar handbags at Herm├Ęs, and move around town in a chauffeured Bentley. Yet Shenzhen has remained a factory town. At various times, the city has served as China’s Detroit, its garment district, and its Silicon Valley. Now, as the world’s scientists focus with increasing intensity on transforming the genetic codes of every living creature into information that can be used to treat and ultimately prevent disease, Shenzhen is home to a different kind of factory: B.G.I., formerly called Beijing Genomics Institute, the world’s largest genetic-research center. With a hundred and seventy-eight machines to sequence the precise order of the billions of chemicals within a molecule of DNA, B.G.I. produces at least a quarter of the world’s genomic data—more than Harvard University, the National Institutes of Health, or any other scientific institution.


The influence of heredity on intelligence is complex involving thousands of genes interacting in such intricate ways that researchers have not yet managed to draw genetic patterns. It’s possible that they never will. But B.G.I. has begun to try, and while scientists at the company take exceptional pains to say there is nothing secretive or threatening about its Cognitive Genomics project, the work has already raised questions in the West. “In twenty to forty years, at least in the developed world, most babies could be conceived through in-vitro fertilization, so that their parents can choose among embryos,” Hank Greely, a professor at Stanford Law School and the director of the university’s Center for Law and the Biosciences, told me. Greely’s book on the ethical implications of genomics and human reproduction, “The End of Sex,” will be published next year. “That way, the parents or someone else can select among a limited number of embryos with the combination of genes they most want to see in their offspring. It’s going to happen. And China will have fewer cultural and legal barriers to it than we will see in the United States.”

…”My guess is that we will at some point be able to say that this embryo has a sixty-five-per-cent chance of scoring in the top half on S.A.T.s, or is likely to have unusual musical ability ,” Greely said . He emphasized that that day is still far off, and that he was talking not about creating “monsters under the bed” but about selecting the most attractive embryos based on the characteristics of their DNA. “In the United States, parents will make those choices, but in China there is more acceptance of government intervention in personal and family decisions.