Months after the birth of his daughter in 2017, father Chris Jung left a test tube containing the baby's saliva at his company's genetic testing lab in Hong Kong. He had great ambitions for her and was looking for clues to the future in her DNA. She could become a prominent professional, he thought, perhaps even a doctor.
But Jung's plans changed after reviewing his company, Gene Discovery, suggesting that his daughter had strong skills in music, math and sports – albeit with less ability to memorize details. While the little girl is growing up, Jung said he will invest resources in developing these talents and will move her away from professions that require a lot of memorization.
"Originally, I would like her to become a doctor or a lawyer," said Jung, chief operating officer of Good Union Corp., the parent company of Gene Discovery. "But the results said her memory is bad. I changed my expectations because if I would like her to go professional, she needs to study hard and have a very good memory."
Gene Discovery has been conducting DNA testing in a large number of rooms in Hong Kong's Tsim Sha Tsui shopping district, near stores selling Prada bags and Dior watches. More than half of its customers are from China, where parents eager to turn their children into prodigies are fueling the advancement of a growing but largely unregulated industry. It is a Chinese version of overprotective parents which reflects the country's tendency to go overboard when it comes to genetics.
Genetic testing is gaining popularity around the world, especially in China. Research firm Global Market Insights expects DNA testing service sales in the country to reach $ 135 million by 2025, tripling last year's $ 41 million revenue. Other consultancies, such as EO Intelligence, project an even faster increase, expecting a $ 405 million market by 2022. EO Intelligence also predicts that by then, about 60 million Chinese consumers will be using test kits. DNA – last year there were 1.5 million people.
For now, the Chinese market is still small compared to the United States, which generates $ 300 million annually, but China is expected to start to stand out in this sector, with average annual sales growth of nearly 17% by 2025, in compared to 15% in the US, according to Global Market Insights.
Gene Discovery is one of several companies looking to meet this growing demand in China, playing the role of today's fortune tellers, with DNA as their crystal ball.
A search of the Chinese online shopping platform JD.com and the Mandarin Internet shows dozens of companies that offer genetic testing for infants and newborns. They promise to help parents discover their child's "potential talents" in everything from logic and math to sports and even emotional intelligence. Helping your child to "win at the starting line" is a common marketing slogan.
Science or guesswork?
Yolanda Yin, Gene Discovery Technical Specialist, in a Hong Kong Lab | PHOTO: Paul Yeung / Bloomberg | Bloomberg
In a society like China, which saw 15 million babies born last year, the appeal is clear. But much of what these startups promise – that DNA can be used to gauge the ability to memorize data, tolerate stress, or show leadership – is more like horoscopes than real science. Critics say that in many cases, such as the autism risk assessment, the claims are based on initial research that is not yet fully understood.
"There is no scientific basis on which you can say these things with any degree of certainty," said Gil McVean, a University of Oxford geneticist and director of the Big Data Institute. The center focuses on analyzing genetic and biological data to prevent and treat disease.
Gene Discovery executives say they are not giving direct or conclusive advice – only presenting potential health risks and talents that parents can use as a reference in a hypercompetitive culture. After decades of stringent population control laws repealed in 2016, most Chinese parents still have only one child, which becomes the focal point of their ambitions.
"DNA testing can be one of the motivators for parents to provide their children with more focused resources," Jung said. Tests sold on the Gene Discovery website cost $ 575 and include an "i-Genius package" to test young children's talents.
Genetics in China
Making China one of the world's scientifically advanced nations is central to President Xi Jinping's ambitions to make China an undisputed world power, but few things better illustrate the challenges it poses than China's fascination with genetics.
Largely free from the regulations and scrutiny observed in the US and other developed countries, China's genetic advances often test the limits of science and bioethics. Last year, Chinese researcher He Jiankui created the world's first genetically modified babies, sparking worldwide protests and worries that China might start an era of human germline editing – where genetic modification is passed on for generations. future changes forever.
And for every new report by Chinese scientists making genuine medical advances, such as editing genes for supernatant annihilation, there are more disconcerting experiments: researchers cloning monkeys born with genes edited to trigger mental illness, using a genetic modification technique to generate super-muscular dogs or create "super monkeys" by injecting human DNA into their brains.
Reading the DNA
DNA is the code that the human body executes and determines a lot about who we are, but scientists are still working to understand this code. Many traits are not caused by just one or two genes, but by hundreds or possibly thousands. An individual's experiences and environment also play an important role in shaping, helping to define, for example, whether children will be math geniuses or develop cancer.
A person's DNA doesn't determine who he is, and having a specific gene doesn't mean he will dictate what will happen in the future. It can only suggest the likelihood of developing a condition or characteristic. A study cited in 2003 in the American Journal of Human Genetics found a compelling link between a variant of the ACTN3 gene and elite athletes such as sprinters. But studies since then have found that while most sprinters have this variant, not everyone who owns it is an elite athlete.
Similarly, having a harmful BRCA mutation, commonly associated with breast and ovarian cancer, does not mean that a person will develop the disease. It just means that the risk is higher than others without this variant.
The next generation
Zhou Xiaoying and his daughter play at their Shanghai home | PHOTO: Qilai Shen / Bloomberg | Bloomberg
In recent years, genetic testing and other screening methods have led to advances in assessing cancer risk in adults and even in diagnosing conditions such as Down syndrome in unborn children. But in China, companies are taking this forward, promising to provide a vision of life beyond the womb that current science generally does not support.
After the birth of her baby in 2017, Zhou Xiaoying was admitted to a postpartum center where she was attended by a team of women, cooks and traditional healers – as is customary in China for mothers with higher purchasing power. There, a sales representative from a genetic testing company made a tempting offer: For about $ 1,500, the company took saliva out of his son's mouth to peek into his future.
The test, which also analyzed the baby's predisposition to genetic disease, told Zhou that his son would probably be talented in music and arts but weak in sports. Zhou says her two-year-old son can hum a song in tune after hearing it once, and the family is moving to a larger house where she intends to cultivate his talents. Zhou has taken the boy out of running and swimming classes and instead plans to buy a piano and start classes right away.
"I wanted to know about his talents in the future so I could set a direction for him," said Shanghai's mother, who worked in the financial sector. "If you believe in the results, you can use it as a reference. Otherwise, that's fine, because it doesn't hurt."
Chinese tradition emphasizes the importance of developing the next generation, while technological advances fuel national obsession with DNA, said Wang Zhaochen, professor of bioethics at Zhejiang University.
But it has come to a point where even the local scientific community is concerned that increased consumer testing may "undermine the authority of those real genetic tests that can really help diagnose disease," he said.
Unregulated genetic testing
While the increasingly competitive nature of child rearing is also felt in places like the US, child and infant talent testing has not yet become fashionable.
In the United States and Europe, most consumers who make …