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State of the art sequencing in the proteomics labortory at genomics research company BGI in Shenzhen, China: The company is raising eyebrows, and hackles. (Garrige Ho For the Globe and Mail)
State of the art sequencing in the proteomics labortory at genomics research company BGI in Shenzhen, China: The company is raising eyebrows, and hackles. (Garrige Ho For the Globe and Mail)

Why China is a genetic powerhouse with a problem Add to ...

Despite the international trade tangles over DNA, Canadian scientists familiar with BGI generally feel that the biotech giant should inspire, rather than intimidate, the rest of the world. Tom Hudson, president and scientific director of the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research, says many countries are more talk than action when it comes to research, but China makes things happen – “there’s extreme momentum.”

BGI’s list of goals tells the story: It aims to improve the human lifespan by five years, increase global food production by 10 per cent, decode half of all genetic diseases to seek treatments and cut birth defects by 50 per cent.

“We are a little bit ambitious,” says Wang Jun, BGI’s 36-year-old executive director, “but we are ambitious for good reason.”


Rise of a global player


It has grown up by the sea in Shenzhen since 2007, but the Beijing Genomics Institute was born in the Chinese capital on Sept. 9, 1999 (considered auspicious because the numbers are associated with longevity). It was the brainchild of three academics who had returned from the United States determined that China join the international effort to map the first human genome.

It was a daring move, as the researchers had yet to persuade the government – essentially China’s only source of research funding – that their cause was worthwhile. Even then, the Human Genome Project drew little attention in China; only when its completion was announced at the White House in June, 2000, did China’s president learn by watching CNN that his country had played a role.

Since then, BGI – which officially operates as a private non-profit company – has grown astronomically, luring back postdoctoral fellows trained in the West and hiring science grads by the hundreds straight out of school. The average age of its more than 4,000 employees is 26, and one-quarter of them are bused to and from company dorms, complete with cafeterias, a medical clinic and a gym.

The youthful labour force gives BGI an edge: Employees make a paltry sum by Western standards (but competitive for China) and they bring a youthful energy to the floor of what has been called “the sequence factory.”

Ontario’s Dr. Hudson considers such youth an asset: “What they lack in seasoned expertise they make up for in their boldness.” But he notes that there are two sides to BGI. One is the founding group of seasoned scientists, still big contributors to major collaborations, including the International Cancer Consortium, which he helped to launch (a 17-nation bid to decode the DNA of 25,000 cancer patients). BGI also has its flagship effort, called the 3M project, a bid to map, with international help, a million plant and animal genomes, a million human genomes and a million micro-ecosystems.

The other arm is the one fuelling BGI’s rapid growth – the global sequencing service – announced with a full-page ad in a leading science journal shortly after its 2010 sequencer shopping spree (each was worth about $500,000). The purchase was financed largely by the China Development Bank, and most of the machines now run non-stop in Shenzhen or in nearby Hong Kong, where regulations for importing samples are less restrictive than on the mainland.

As the ability to decode DNA becomes faster and cheaper, BGI expects to sequence 40,000 to 50,000 genomes this year – more than 10 a minute. And quantity isn’t the only improvement, says Dr. Poznansky of the Ontario Genomics Institute, He visited Shenzhen in 2010 and, “within a year, the quality of the data coming from BGI went from being horrible, to pretty darn good.”

Yet as BGI cements its role as the world’s sequencer, uneasiness persists about just how much genetic information it will collect and be the first to mine. Dr. Poznansky is familiar with the security concerns: “What if the Chinese keep the data … If they make the discoveries, they will own it. … Are we confident they won’t steal the data?”

This view, he says, stems largely from the ethos of the pharmaceutical industry: “We won’t go into China or India and build labs there because they won’t respect intellectual property laws.”

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