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China’s ‘Quantum Leap’ in Genetics Could Provide ‘Renewed Theoretical Foundation’ for Eugenics

DNA molecule in red and blue.

A new Chinese breakthrough in genetics sheds light on human evolution and may give scientific legitimacy to the idea of eugenics, according to a prominent Chinese scientist.

The term "eugenics" often conjures associations with Adolf Hitler, who championed American ideas about promoting good genes and used them to launch his infamous campaign of exterminating the "unfit." Tragically, Americans pioneered the process of controlling human reproduction, forcing sterilization on those branded unworthy to have children. Since 1994, China has put into effect its own kind of eugenics.

"Chinese scientists have identified the crucial factor that activates gene expression in human embryos, providing significant theoretical basis for the studies on eugenics," Xue Yongbiao, director of the Beijing Institute of Genomics and a member of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), told China's government newspaper the People's Daily.

Yongbiao championed a recent study published in the scientific journal Cell. The paper, "Chromatin Accessibility Landscape in Human Early Embryos and Its Association with Evolution," revealed more of the mystery of human development in the womb.

While the transition from zygote (the single-cell product of an egg and a sperm) to fetus to newborn remains largely unexplained, the paper's authors at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Beijing Institute of Genomics (BIG), Shandong University, and Guangzhou Medical University wrote that they have uncovered a previously known factor in the beginning of zygote cell multiplication.

The process of gene expression — translating genetic code from one source (DNA) to put it into action (forming proteins or DNA strands to create more cells) — begins with transcription, the process of copying the original code into a temporary form. The Chinese scientists discovered the crucial role of Oct-4 in the multiplication of cells from a zygote, the first form a human being takes in the womb.

Oct-4 activates the process of turning a zygote into a fetus, but it also causes older genes to start expression at early embryonic stages, and younger ones at later stages. The older genes, shared by more life species, are needed during earlier phases of development.

One of the strongest arguments for the theory of evolution is the human embryo's path developing from one form to another. These embryonic stages seem to suggest a trace of the history of human evolution, and these Chinese scientists claim to have discovered that Oct-4 confirms that basic idea.

According to their research, transposons, a class of DNA elements, can jump from one position to another in a genome, causing DNA mutations. Transposons are active in early embryos, and the mutations they cause are more likely to be passed on to future generations, the scientists added.