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BGI's Young Chinese Scientists Will Map Any Genome

In an old shoe factory in Shenzhen, thousands of young scientists have set out to map the DNA of ... pretty much everything
Deng Wenxi with plant genomes
Deng Wenxi with plant genomesPhotograph by Luke Casey for Bloomberg Businessweek

When the workday ends at BGI’s factory in Shenzhen, the headquarters of the largest genome mapping company in the world, it’s like a bell has gone off at math camp. The company’s scientists and technicians spill out of the doorways of the building, baby-faced and wearing jeans and sneakers. Some still have braces. Several young women link arms and skip toward a bus line. Others head next door to the dorm or over to the canteen where young couples are holding hands across plastic trays. “This work we do is tiring and requires focus,” says Liu Xin, a 26-year-old team leader in the bioinformatics division, as he sinks into a couch in one of BGI’s conference rooms. “So it’s good that they allow us to date.”

Liu is one of a small army of recent college graduates at BGI’s largest facility, a former shoe factory. Two gray buildings, the factory and the dorm, are wedged between one of Shenzhen’s industrial zones—a grid of high-rises, apartment buildings, and several hospitals and medical equipment companies—and a lush, jungly hill that’s in the process of being bulldozed. Liu is stocky and serious, glad that he already has a steady girlfriend so he can focus on his career. He arrived at BGI three years ago, a biology major from Peking University with little experience in the study of the genome, the term for the entirety of an organism’s genetic information. Now he’s one of the senior people in his department. He works 12-hour days and oversees the sequencing of multiple genomes at a time. He specializes in plants—his team is currently sequencing a species of orchid. The bioinformatics teams around him are picking through the genomes of animals, microbial organisms, humans, and anything else that comes with a genetic code. “Everyone is just out of college,” he says. “I am now more sophisticated than most of the newcomers.”