China: The dragon's DNA, The Economist, June 17th, 2010
IN AN old printing works on an obscure industrial estate in Hong Kong’s New Territories a little bit of history is being made. Most of the five-storey building is dusty and derelict. One floor, however, is state-of-the-art. The paintwork shines. The metal gleams. And in the largest room the electrical sockets in the floor sit in serried ranks awaiting contact.
That contact will shortly be made with the delivery of 120 spanking new top-of-the-range Illumina sequencing machines. When they have all been installed the building will, so it is claimed, have more DNA-sequencing capacity than the whole of the United States. And that is just the start. According to Alex Wong, who runs the facility, the other four floors will also soon be refurbished and the whole building will become a powerhouse ready to generate information for biology 2.0.
The building belongs to the BGI, once known as the Beijing Genomics Institute. Mr Wong manages the institute’s Hong Kong operation, but the institute itself is based over the border in the People’s Republic proper, in Shenzhen. The BGI itself is one part—arguably the leading one—of China’s effort to show that it can be the scientific peer of the West.
Its boss, Yang Huangming, is certainly the peer of people like Dr Venter, Dr Lander and Dr Collins. He is a man on a mission to make the BGI the first global genomics operation. Part of the reason for building his newest sequencing centre in Hong Kong is to reassure researchers from other countries that the facility will operate inside a reliable legal framework. If all goes well, laboratories in North America and Europe will follow.
The BGI began in 1999, when Dr Yang muscled his way into the human-genome project, cornering part of the tip of chromosome three (about 1% of the total human genome) as the Chinese contribution to that international project. From this humble beginning it now plans to sequence 200 full human genomes as part of an international collaboration called the 1,000-genome project. Half these genomes will be Chinese, but the institute’s researchers intend to sample the full geographical range of humanity. And not only human genomes. The BGI has already solved the genomes of rice, cucumbers, soyabeans and sorghum, honeybees, water fleas, pandas, lizards and silkworms, and some 40 other species of plant and animal, along with over 1,000 bacteria.
And it, too, is interested in cancer. According to Dr Yang the institute will not merely compare healthy and tumorous tissue from the same individuals, as the International Cancer Genome Consortium (of which it is a part) plans to do, it will actually be able to follow the pattern of mutation, in the order that it happened, within an individual that has led to his cancer. That may allow pre-emptive treatment to be developed for people whose tumours are not yet malignant. Indeed, as the price of sequencing drops, this “internal phylogenetics”, as Dr Yang calls it, might be extended to trace the pattern of mutation that develops in even an apparently healthy body as cells proliferate within it. That may yield nothing interesting. On the other hand it might help explain patterns of disease associated with ageing as cells whose ancestors were genetically identical slowly diverge from one another.
A better balsa
The BGI also has non-medical ambitions. Its researchers are examining fast-growing plants with interesting structural properties, such as balsa, a lightweight South American wood familiar to generations of schoolboy model-makers, and bamboo, a traditional construction material in China. They are experimenting, too, with animal cloning. The BGI was the first outfit to clone pigs, and it has developed a new and more effective way of cloning mammals that might ultimately be applied to humans, if that were ever permitted.
But the organisation is involved in even more controversial projects. It is about to embark on a search for the genetic underpinning of intelligence. Two thousand Chinese schoolchildren will have 2,000 of their protein-coding genes sampled, and the results correlated with their test scores at school. Though it will cover less than a tenth of the total number of protein-coding genes, it will be the largest-scale examination to date of the idea that differences between individuals’ intelligence scores are partly due to differences in their DNA.
Dr Yang is also candid about the possibility of the 1,000-genome project revealing systematic geographical differences in human genetics—or, to put it politically incorrectly, racial differences. The differences that have come to light so far are not in sensitive areas such as intelligence. But if his study of schoolchildren does find genes that help control intelligence, a comparison with the results of the 1,000-genome project will be only a mouse-click away.
At the moment this frenetic activity is paid for mostly by regional development grants and loans from state-owned Chinese banks, but Dr Yang hopes to go properly commercial. The Hong Kong operation will work partly as a contractor, and Mr Wong hopes to persuade biologists around the world to send their samples in and have them sequenced there rather than relying on their own universities to do the sequencing. Whether the BGI’s researchers can turn their mass-produced DNA sequences into new scientific insights and bankable products remains to be seen, but the world is watching.