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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

China: genomics without political correctness

A reader in Argentina recommends the following article about genomics in China.

Economist: ... with the delivery of 120 spanking new top-of-the-range Illumina sequencing machines. When they have all been installed the building will, so it is claimed, have more DNA-sequencing capacity than the whole of the United States.

... The building belongs to the BGI, once known as the Beijing Genomics Institute. Mr Wong manages the institute’s Hong Kong operation, but the institute itself is based over the border in the People’s Republic proper, in Shenzhen. The BGI itself is one part—arguably the leading one—of China’s effort to show that it can be the scientific peer of the West.

Its boss, Yang Huangming, is certainly the peer of people like Dr Venter, Dr Lander and Dr Collins. He is a man on a mission to make the BGI the first global genomics operation. Part of the reason for building his newest sequencing centre in Hong Kong is to reassure researchers from other countries that the facility will operate inside a reliable legal framework. If all goes well, laboratories in North America and Europe will follow.

... The BGI was the first outfit to clone pigs, and it has developed a new and more effective way of cloning mammals that might ultimately be applied to humans, if that were ever permitted.

But the organisation is involved in even more controversial projects. It is about to embark on a search for the genetic underpinning of intelligence. Two thousand Chinese schoolchildren will have 2,000 of their protein-coding genes sampled, and the results correlated with their test scores at school. Though it will cover less than a tenth of the total number of protein-coding genes, it will be the largest-scale examination to date of the idea that differences between individuals’ intelligence scores are partly due to differences in their DNA.

Dr Yang is also candid about the possibility of the 1,000-genome project revealing systematic geographical differences in human genetics—or, to put it politically incorrectly, racial differences. The differences that have come to light so far are not in sensitive areas such as intelligence. But if his study of schoolchildren does find genes that help control intelligence, a comparison with the results of the 1,000-genome project will be only a mouse-click away.

Of course an almost equally interesting question is when will the Chinese start producing their own successors to the Illumina sequencers?

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