Inside China’s Genome Factory

At MIT Technology Review, Christina Larson profiles the world’s most prolific DNA sequencer, BGI-Shenzhen, which has unravelled the genomes of the rice plant and the giant panda, contributed to the international Human Genome Project, and isolated Tibetans’ genetic adaptation to life at high altitudes. The budding “bio-Google” is now collaborating with Danish, American and British research into obesity, autism and intelligence, and with the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia on medical DNA analysis.

BGI-Shenzhen, once known as the Beijing Genomics Institute, has burst from relative obscurity to become the world’s most prolific sequencer of human, plant, and animal DNA. In 2010, with the aid of a $1.58 billion line of credit from China Development Bank, BGI purchased 128 state-of-the-art DNA sequencing machines for about $500,000 apiece. It now owns 156 sequencers from several manufacturers and accounts for some 10 to 20 percent of all DNA data produced globally. So far, it claims to have completely sequenced some 50,000 human genomes—far more than any other group.

BGI’s sheer size has already put Chinese gene research on the map. Those same economies of scale could also become an advantage as comprehensive gene readouts become part of everyday medicine. The cost of DNA sequencing is falling fast. In a few years, it’s likely that millions of people will want to know what their genes predict about their health. BGI might be the one to tell them.

[…] Wang [Jian, BGI’s president and cofounder], the Everest climber, is still frequently asked to explain BGI’s strategy and its intentions. He says to think of a wandering migrant worker—looking for opportunity and occasionally irritating the authorities. That is what BGI is like. But its only core mission is to do work that will be socially useful, he says: its strategy is to “do good.”