German doctors racing this summer to halt the deadliest outbreak on record of E. coli turned to a Chinese genome-sequencing center for help unraveling the bacteria’s genetic code, bypassing more established institutions in the U.S. and Europe.
China’s BGI put the results online three days later, enabling researchers to trace the strain’s origins while they tried to work out what caused the bug to kill at least 49 people and sicken thousands more in 13 countries. Such missions are payoff from a four-year drive to build the world’s biggest sequencer of genomes -- data used to fight disease, improve crops and save rare species.
Mapping genes of pathogens, rice and giant pandas helped BGI raise its profile and win clients such as Merck & Co. and Novartis AG. Still, the Shenzhen-based organization needs more skills to move it up the value chain. That mirrors challenges facing the country as a whole, where growth in spending on science is outstripping that in the U.S. and Europe as China seeks to escape from reliance on low-cost manufacturing.
“‘Made in China’ is a label found everywhere,” said Richard N. Zare, Stanford professor of chemistry, who chaired an international committee to evaluate the country’s National Natural Science Foundation in the past year. “Clearly, the Chinese government also wants to see ‘discovered in China’ and ‘invented in China’ become more prominent.”
China this year launched its first space laboratory and unveiled a stealth fighter jet, raising concerns in the U.S. and among Asian neighbors. Gains in civilian technologies offer a less-threatening way for the country that invented gunpowder and surpassed ancient Greece in calculating pi to recapture a leading role as a technological power.
The government has included biotechnology as one of seven strategic industries that it wants to account for 15 percent of gross domestic product by 2020, from around 3 percent now, Patrick A. Mulloy, a member of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, told U.S. lawmakers in June at a hearing on China’s strategic threat to American business.
Annual spending on research and development in China has grown 20 percent each year since 1999, to more than $100 billion now, the Royal Society said in a report. The number of scientific papers published in China surpassed the U.K. this year, and will overtake the U.S. by 2013, the London-based science fellowship said.
Having access to technology and being a science destination of choice “enhances China’s soft power for sure,” said Ren Yue, professor of international security at the University of Hong Kong. The government backing and growth prospects also help lure and retain talent, especially people who have spent time overseas, he said.
Government support hasn’t always been forthcoming, as BGI Chairman Yang Huanming found. Following post-graduate studies in Denmark, France and the U.S., he returned to China in 1994, determined to win the country a role in the Human Genome Project. When his funding requests failed, Yang and three others used their own money and won private backing to set up BGI in 1999.
The genome program, founded by the U.S. government to map out the genes in human DNA, had up until then excluded the world’s most populous nation.
“The genome is basically a living document of who you are,” said Fred Leung, professor of biological sciences at the University of Hong Kong. “If you have kids 10 years from now, their genome will likely be sequenced five times throughout their lives for medical and health reasons.”
In its early years, the Beijing Genomics Institute operated from an industrial zone near the capital’s airport. A few dozen employees used wooden packaging crates from imported sequencing machinery to build laboratory benches, said BGI spokeswoman Yang Bicheng.
Four years ago, Chairman Yang and the directors made the decision to reorganize along commercial lines to tap a DNA-sequencing market expected to reach $3.3 billion by 2015, from $1.3 billion in 2010, according to industry forecaster BCC Research.
Armed with a 10 billion yuan ($1.58 billion) credit line from state-backed China Development Bank Corp., BGI accelerated purchases of next-generation sequencers -- machines that look like an amalgam of a giant fridge, photocopier and television.
BGI now has 167 of them and employs 3,680 people, out muscling more-established non-profit institutions at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Cambridge, England, in the volume of genetic data it can produce each year. At full capacity, BGI can now sequence the equivalent of 2,000 human genomes a day, spokeswoman Yang said. In a mark of how processing power has increased, it took 13 years for scientists to publish the first one.
Besides the E. coli strain, BGI also sequenced the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome virus, which killed or infected more than 9,000 people in at least 32 countries in 2003. Mapping out genes of a virus in an outbreak is useful when looking for the source of infection, said David Heymann, who heads global health security at London’s Chatham House.
The data may also have applications for drug development. “The hope is that effective anti-infective medicines and vaccines can be designed based on the information provided by genetic sequences,” Heymann said.
Whitehouse Station, New Jersey-based Merck and Basel-based Novartis are among pharmaceutical companies outsourcing sequencing and the processing of raw data to BGI, according to spokeswoman Yang.
Know Their ABCs
“The nucleotide sequences that are part of the genetic code are like the alphabet,” said King L. Chow, life sciences professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “But knowing the alphabet doesn’t make you a novelist.”
BGI imports all its machines from companies including San Diego-based Illumina Inc., Carlsbad, California-based Life Technologies Corp. and Basel, Switzerland-based Roche Holding Inc.
“Finding sequences is the easy part,” said Ian Lipkin, whose own lab at Columbia University in New York uses a variety of molecular techniques -- including high-throughput sequencing -- to obtain microbes’ genetic fingerprints. “The real challenge is figuring out what the sequences mean.”
Many of BGI’s scientists were hired straight from university. Their average age is 25 and there are gaps in “knowledge of different specialties,” said BGI Hong Kong Executive Director Alex Wong. “Internationally, there are those that are still skeptical of Chinese results.”
To gain credibility, BGI opened a five-story facility in Hong Kong, “which has Western regulations and follows Western-style education,” he said.
BGI is also setting up academic partnerships, including one with the University of California at Davis last month. The venture would generate about 200 jobs in the Sacramento region - - and allow the Chinese firm to tap the university’s “diverse resources and expertise,” they said in a statement. A similar project is planned with the University of Copenhagen in February next year, said spokeswoman Yang.
While building its academic credentials and skills, BGI for now is taking on less-skilled work, such as human papilloma virus screening for clinics and hospitals. It had revenue of 1.2 billion yuan last year, about sufficient to cover operational costs, she said.
“We have our scientific mission, but we still need to survive,” Wong said.