Ion Proton DNA sequencers, BGI Shenzhen, China. Attrib: Scotted400, CC-BY-SA-3.0.
Beijing Genomics Institute, BGI, situated in Shenzhen, on the border between Guangdong and Hong Kong, claims the title of the world’s biggest Genomics institute. Their president Jian Wang said, ‘For the last 500 years, you (the West) have been leading the way with innovation. We are no longer interested in following.’ The scale of their sequencing capability is large, as are their goals: to crack hunger, illness, evolution – and the genetics of human intelligence.
BGI was formed in 1999, and participated in the international Human Genome Project, producing Currently, BGI can sequence an entire human genome in several days at a cost of under $1,000, as compared to 10 years and billions of dollars for the Human Genome Project not 15 years ago.
BGI is sequencing thousands of genomes of humans, other animals, bacteria, and plants. Some of the sequenced human genomes have already produced insights into human evolution. 50 Tibetan and 40 Han Chinese genomes were sequenced, representing 3 generations in each group. The resulting analysis showed that Tibetans split off from the Han around 3,000 years ago. At least 30 genes with mutations have become more prevalent in Tibetans than in the Han, nearly half of which are related to oxygen metabolism, important to Tibetans who live on a 14,000 foot plateau. This is a very rapid genetic change in a population.
In 2011, a deadly strain of E. coli emerged in Germany, and spread quickly to other parts of Europe. BGI rapidly mapped the genome, placed the results on the Internet as open source, and within a week, scientists around the world analyzed the strain and published open source reports on the same website.
They already have produced a noninvasive test for Down’s which detects fetal DNA in the mother’s bloodstream in the 10th week of pregnancy, which could replace the invasive and more risky amniocentesis process today. They are seeking ways to genetically enhance plants without GM techniques, by breeding based on intimate DNA knowledge of the plants, or to extend via GM the nutrient value of cassava, for example, a primary source of food in parts of Africa and Asia. The analyses provided crucial info about the strain’s virulence and resistance genes, producing results in time to help contain the outbreak.