Shenzhen Firm Is World's Biggest Genome Sequencer

A private Chinese firm based in Shenzhen has more genome-sequencing machines and has sequenced more genomes — human, animal and plant — than any other organization in the world, according to Technology Review.

Using an array of 156 genome sequencers purchases from several different firms, BGI-Shenzhen has produced between 10 and 20% of all DNA data produced around the world. Among them are the complete sequences of 50,000 human genomes as well as 90 varieties of chick peas.

The private non-profit, which employs 4,000, uses its sequencing capacity on a wide variety of activities ranging from the most abstractly scientific to the most routinely profit-oriented. One of its profit-making activities includes sequencing individual genomes for as little as $3,000 a pop. By its scale BGI Shenzhen has been a major factor in bringing down the cost of sequencing genomes from the $3 billion cost of completing the Human Genome Project ten years ago. The cost will fall even further to just $200 or $300 within another decade, according to a BGI senior researcher.

BGI also makes its capabilities available to genome researchers around the world. One is a Michigan State University project, headed up by its vice president of research Steve Hsu, to isolate genes that influence intelligence. BGI is currently sequencing the DNA of over 2,000 people with IQ scores of at least 160. The DNA comes mainly from blood samples of mostly Americans collected by a psychologist at King’s College, London. BGI is doing the work essentially for free. Having similar work performed in the west would have cost $15-$20 million.

BGI also sequencing the genomes of up to 10,000 people from families with autistic children for the US nonprofit Autism Speaks. Another project is sequencing the genomes of 3,000 fat people and 3,000 lean ones for Danish researchers.

Looking ahead to the day when consumers will routinely have their genomes mapped, in 2011 BGI installed a DNA analysis center inside the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. The center is now operating with five sequencing machines. That operation will be on a fee-per-sequencing basis, laying the groundwork for a future business model.

BGI has come a long way since it was founded in 1999 by Wang Jian, 59, and Yang Huanming, 61. Its first coup was persuading the Human Genome Project to let them handle 1% of the sequencing. That made China the only developing nation to play a major role in the HGP. In May of 2002 BGI again won recognition from the scientific community when it published in the journal Science the results of a successful sequencing of the rice plant — which contains about 50% more pairs than the human genome.

Since then it has also mapped the DNA of the giant panda, and isolated the genetic mutation that makes Tibetans adapted to life at high altitudes. That feat held special interest for Wang, an alpinist who summited Everest in 2010.

“It’s a national park,” shrugged Wang when reminded of the feat. “So what? Not a big deal.”

Wang’s fondness for challenges is evident in his $118 million bid to buy the struggling Mountain View-based Complete Genomics which has used its sophisticated technology to sequence about 10% of the DNA data produced in 2012. Illumina, the leading maker of sequencing machines, which sought to rouse the Feds to the threat posed by the prospective union. Regulators shrugged off the concerns and are set to approve the deal.

One reason for their lack of concern may be the fact that BGI gets only about 10% of its funds from Chinese government projects, mostly from municipalities. Most of its revenues are a combination of grants, anonymous donations and fees from providing its sequencing services to individuals and institutions.

The deal could set the stage for China to take the lead in transforming what has heretofore been mostly a scientific tool into a potentially universal healthcare procedure. As the cost of sequencing the human genome drops below the $1,000 level within the next few years, the procedure is likely to become as routine as sonograms for virtually every mother who conceives a child.

“We like science,” Wang says in an effort at explaining BGI’s operating philosophy. “We need money. We put the two things together. I use my left hand to make money and my right hand to do basic research.”

He put it even more succinctly on a slide of his presentation at a Shenzhen conference cosponsored by BGI: “World-Class Science = World-Class Business.”