China Is Rewriting the Book on Genome Research

Lab technicians at the Beijing Genomics Institute in Shenzhen, China. Clockwise from upper left: Zhi Wei Luo; Wan Ling Li; Zi Long Zhang; and Yu Zhu Xu. Ian Teh / Panos for Newsweek (4)

The world's largest genome-mapping facility is in an unlikely corner of China. Hidden away in a gritty neighborhood in Shenzhen's Yantian district, surrounded by truck-repair shops and scrap yards prowled by chickens, Beijing's most ambitious biomedical project is housed in a former shoe factory.

But the modest gray exterior belies the state-of-the-art research inside. In immaculate, glass-walled and neon-lit rooms resembling intensive care units, rows of identical machines emit a busy hum. The Illumina HiSeq 2000 is a top-of-the-line genome-sequencing machine that carries a price tag of $500,000. There are 128 of them here, flanked by rows of similar high-tech equipment, making it possible for the Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI) to churn out more high quality DNA-sequence data than all U.S. academic facilities put together.

"Genes build the future," announces a poster on the wall, and there is no doubt that China has set its eye on that future. This year, Forbes magazine estimated that the genomics market will reach $100 billion over the next decade, with scientists analyzing vast quantities of data to offer new ways to fight disease, feed the world, and harness microbes for industrial purposes. "The situation in genomics resembles the early days of the Internet," says Harvard geneticist George Church, who advises BGI and a number of American genomics companies. "No one knows what will turn out to be the killer apps." Companies such as Microsoft, Google, IBM, and Intel have already invested in genomics, seeing the field as an extension of their own businesses—data handling and management. "The big realization is that biology has become an information science," says Dr. Yang Huanming, cofounder and president of BGI. "If we accept that [genomics] builds on the digitalization of life, then all kinds of genetic information potentially holds value."

BGI didn't always seem destined for success—or even survival. "The crazy guys" was how Chinese colleagues initially referred to the two founders, Huanming and director Wang Jian. Refused government support, they muscled their way into the international Human Genome Project, mapping out 1 percent of that celebrated first full sequence before tackling the rice-plant genome on their own, beating a well-funded international consortium, and suddenly finding political leverage. Yang and Wang used it to set up the research center, which is nominally nonprofit but carries out commercial activities in support of the research. With an annual grant of $3 million from the local government in exchange for moving to the shoe factory in 2007, BGI first grew modestly, generating income from fee-for-service sequencing and conducting molecular diagnostic tests for hospitals. A $1.5 billion loan from the Chinese Development Bank in 2009 allowed the company to catapult into a different league, and its combination of sequencing power and advanced DNA data-management solutions for the pharma industry are now drawing international attention. Last year, pharmaceutical giant Merck announced plans for a research collaboration with BGI, as the Chinese company's revenue hit $150 million—revenue projected to triple this year. "I admire their passion and the willingness to take risks," says Steven Hsu, a physicist at the University of Oregon, adding that "it permeates the organization."

Others would like to see deeper scientific reflection tempering the monumental ambition. "A more philosophical and conceptual rather than just a technical approach to the genome is needed to foster great discovery," says long-time collaborator Oluf Borbye Pedersen of the University of Copenhagen.

While other well-known genomics centers such as Boston's Broad Institute concentrate more narrowly on human health, the Shenzhen scientists cover a broad biological spectrum. In one shiny lab, thousands of microbes are being scanned for genes that might serve useful industrial purposes, while in another human stem cells are being developed for clinical applications. Scientists have mapped the genomes of everything from cucumbers and 40 different strains of silk worms to the giant panda. They have also cataloged tens of thousands of genes of bacteria living in the human gut, and pieced together the genomic puzzle of an ancient human—an extinct paleo-Eskimo who lived in Greenland 4,500 years ago. While such academic prestige projects are geared toward publication in scientific journals, real-world experimentation is going on at a nearby farm where pigs are cloned to serve as disease models. And in Laos, scientists are testing genetically enhanced plants to feed China's growing population. The institute has already amassed almost 250 potentially lucrative patents covering agricultural, industrial, and medical applications.

Satellite research centers have been set up or are underway in the U.S., Europe, Hong Kong, and four other locations in China, and the number of researchers at the main headquarters in Shenzhen has more than doubled during the past year and a half. The institute now employs almost 4,000 scientists and technicians—and is still expanding.

"I've seen it happen but sometimes even I can't believe how fast we are moving," says Luo Ruibang, a bioinformaticist, who at 23, fits perfectly within the company's core demographic. The average age of the research staff is 26.

Li Yingrui, 24, directs the bioinformatics department and its 1,500 computer scientists. Having dropped out of college because it didn't present enough of an intellectual challenge, he firmly believes in motivating young employees with wide-ranging freedom and responsibility. "They grow with the task and develop faster," he says. One of his researchers is 18-year-old Zhao Bowen. While still in high school, Zhao joined the bioinformatics team for a summer project and blew everyone away with his problem-solving skills. After consulting with his parents, he took a full-time job as a researcher and finished school during his downtime. Fittingly, he now manages a project on the genetic basis of high IQ. His team is sampling 1,000 Chinese adults with an IQ higher than 145, comparing their genomes with those of an equal number of randomly picked control subjects. Zhao acknowledges that such projects linking intelligence with genes may be controversial but "more so elsewhere than in China," he says, adding that several U.S. research groups have contacted him for collaboration. "Everybody is interested in intelligence," he says.

A shoe factory becoming a genomics center, scientists replacing blue-collar workers—the Shenzhen research facility embodies the country's economic and social ambitions. According to a 2010 report from Monitor Group, a management consulting firm based in Boston, China is "poised to become the global leader in life-science discovery and innovation within the next decade."

The Chinese government will, by next year, have spent $124 billion since 2009 building hospitals and health-care centers. Such strategic investments have lured Chinese scientists back to China. So far, at least 80,000 Western-trained Ph.D.s have returned, the vast majority in the past five years. With the country on track to become the second-largest pharmaceuticals market next year, and the U.S. failing behind, afflicted by weak—and declining—government funding of basic science as well as anemic collaboration between private and public sectors, China could take the lead. As George Baeder, vice president of Monitor Group Asia, says, China "has the potential to create a more efficient model for discovering and developing new drugs," a prediction echoed by Caroline Wagner, a science-policy specialist and professor at Pennsylvania State University, who argues in a forthcoming paper that the days of American leadership will soon be gone. "After more than half a century at the top spot, the U.S. will become one big player among several," she says.

But, Wagner adds, "science is not a zero-sum game," and as the pie gets bigger, so will the opportunities for collaboration. Yang, for his part, puts it simply: "Genomics is international," he says. "We must collaborate to survive and develop." Certainly, the scientists at his Shenzhen headquarters have their view on the world. The latest shipment of high-tech toys sits, still unpacked, on the floor; the stamp on the sides of the crates proclaiming: Made in the USA.

Frank is author of the forthcoming book 'My Beautiful Genome.'