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China at forefront of global DNA project
By Jiang Jingjing (China Daily)
Updated: 2005-04-23 00:17

Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?

That's the title of what has been described as Paul Gaugin's ultimate masterpiece painted circa 1897.

More than a century ago, the celebrated French post-Impressionist artist tried to visually grapple with these existentialist issues but provided no definite answers -- neither could many thinkers, philosophers and religious figures before and after him.

More prosaically, a recent book, Our Place in Nature -- Where Do We Come From, by well-known authors -- Dr Jan Klein and Dr Naoyuki Takahata -- described how scienists decipher human origins from the record encrypted in DNA and protein molecules.

An issue as profound as our origins, our existence and afterlife has perhaps inevitably become entangled in politics, religion, schools and the courts in the United States, where "creationists' face off against "evolutionists."

China is taking a scientic, albeit cautious, approach as it teams up with the National Geographic Society) to address the issue and ensures that national interests are not compromised.

The society, founded in 1888 and one of the world's largest non-profit scientific and educational organizations, said this week in Beijing that China will become be a major participant in a worldwide genographic project over the next five years.

"About 10,000 samples will be collected in China, an important region for the evolution of the human beings," said Jin Li, a professor at Fudan University. The institution will be in charge of data collection in East and Southeast Asia for the undertaking.

Jin said samples -- from cotton swabs used to collect cells inside the cheeks of volunteers -- will be gathered on the bases of nationalities, language and geographic characteristics. More than 100,000 will be amassed in 10 regions across the world.

The project hopes to assemble one of the world's largest DNA databases, with the goal of mapping how the Earth was originally populated.

Led by society Explorer-in-Residence Spencer Wells, a team of international scientists and IBM researchers will analyze the results and report on the genetic roots of modern humans.

Experiements from the project are expected to reveal rich details about global human migratory history and to develop a new understanding about the connections and differences that make up the human species.

Wells described the projecct as "the 'moon shot' of anthropology, using genetics to fill in the gaps in our knowledge of human history."

He stressed the urgency of the project since people are migrating and inter-marrying far more than in the past.

"Genetic history is at the edge of losing its track in the modern world," Wells said.

Jin promised that no Chinese DNA samples will be exported. "They will be tested at the university locally in compliance with the Chinese regulations."

Qiu Hongwei, director of the department of the biological resource security under the Human Genetic Resource Administration of China, said government approval should be secured before any samples are actually collected.

"To better regulate such international genetic projects, a new regulation is being drafted and will be sent to the State Council for approval. It is expected to be approved next year," Qiu said.

He explained that genetic resources are personal and private information, and that the protection of such data should be guaranteed according to the law.

He noted that few Chinese entererprises are engaged in genetic medical research and "if some foreign drug producers get the information, they can develop genetics-based drugs which could impact on China's pharmaceutical industry."

However, Ajay K. Royyuru, senior manager of IBM's computational biology centre, said that the safety of all data would be strictly guaranteed.

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