Months after his daughter’s birth in 2017, Chris Jung dropped off a test-tube of her saliva to his company’s genetic testing lab in Hong Kong. He had grand ambitions for the baby, and was seeking clues to the future in her DNA.
An analysis by his firm, Gene Discovery, suggested his daughter had strong abilities in music, math and sports — though a lesser aptitude for memorizing details. As the little girl grows up, Jung said he will pour resources into developing those talents, while steering her away from professions that require a lot of memorization.
“Originally, I would like her to become a professional like a doctor or lawyer,” said Jung, chief operating officer of Good Union Corp., the parent company of Gene Discovery. “I switched my expectations.”
Gene Discovery does brisk business hawking DNA tests out of a warren of rooms in Hong Kong’s Tsim Sha Tsui shopping district, near stores selling Prada bags and Dior watches. More than half of its clients are from China’s mainland, where parents eager to shape their offspring into prodigies are fueling the advance of a growing but largely unregulated industry.
While gaining in popularity across the globe, consumer genetic testing is booming in China. Delaware-based research firm Global Market Insights Inc. sees sales tripling to $135 million by 2025 from $41 million last year. Others, like Beijing-based consultancy EO Intelligence, project an even faster surge in the market, to $405 million in 2022.
Dozens of Chinese firms vow to help parents uncover their children’s “potential talents” in everything from logic and math to sports and even emotional intelligence. Help your child “win at the starting line” is a common marketing refrain.
In a society like China, which saw 15 million babies born last year, the appeal is clear. But many of the claims from these newly minted companies — that DNA can be used to assess ability to memorize data, tolerate stress or show leadership — are more horoscope than actual science. “There’s not a scientific basis on which you can say those things with any degree of certainty,” said Gil McVean, an Oxford University geneticist.
Making China one of the world’s most scientifically advanced nations is key to President Xi Jinping’s ambitions to make the country an indisputable world power. But for every report of Chinese scientists making genuine medical breakthroughs, such as gene-editing the annihilation of a superbug, there are the more eyebrow-raising experiments: researchers cloning macaques born with genes edited to trigger mental illness or creating “super monkeys” by injecting their brains with human DNA.
DNA is the code that the human body runs on and it determines much about who we are. But DNA doesn’t single-handedly determine who we are, and having a certain gene can’t predict the future. One highly cited 2003 study in the American Journal of Human Genetics found a compelling link between a variant of the gene ACTN3 and elite power athletes like sprinters, but studies since have found that while most sprinters have that variant, not everyone who has it is an elite athlete.
In recent years, genetic testing and other screening methods have led to breakthroughs in assessing cancer risk in adults, or diagnosing conditions like Down syndrome in utero. But in China companies are taking that further, promising to deliver insight on life beyond the womb that current science often doesn’t support.
After her baby’s birth in 2017, Zhou Xiaoying was given a tantalizing offer: For about $1,500, a genetic testing company would swab saliva from her son’s mouth to offer a peek into his future. The test told Zhou her son was likely to be gifted in music and the arts — but weak in sports. Zhou said her now 2-year-old son can hum a song in tune after hearing it once and that she pulled the boy out of running and swimming classes.
“If you believe the results, then you can use it as a reference,” she said. “If you don’t, that’s fine because it doesn’t hurt.”
Still, some health experts aren’t convinced.
“There’s just no way a DNA test will tell you anything that’s meaningful about complex traits,” said Timothy Caulfield, a bioethicist and health policy expert at the University of Alberta who specializes in genetics. “And these parents are changing their kids’ lives.”