China genomics institute outpaces the world

Updated: 2011-06-14 17:19
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SHENZHEN - Many people were surprised when BGI (formerly Beijing Genomics Institute), a Chinese genomics institute, sequenced a strain of E. coli bacterium responsible for the outbreak in Germany that killed at least 18 people earlier this month.

But it was no surprise for Qin Junjie, deputy head of BGI's microorganism genomics researcher center, whose team sequenced the bacterium in three days. "We have the greatest output of genomics data and the best team to analyze it," Qin said.

BGI is more like a factory than a lab, according to Qin. The BGI facility, a converted shoe factory in Shenzhen city, now houses 137 top-of-the-line genome-sequencing machines and high-speed computers.

BGI pumped out 500 Tb of genomics data in 2010 - ten times the amount of data the US National Center for Biology Information (NCBI) produced in the past twenty years. BGI expects to produce 100 Pb of data in 2011, Qin said.

In addition, BGI used Ion Torrent, a newly-developed sequencing machine that is much quicker. "Even half an hour counts in the fight against epidemics," said Yang Bicheng, spokeswoman for BGI.

To cope with the vast amount of data, BGI needs a robust, young staff. The institute has 3,000 scientists who are younger than 25 on average. At 29, Qin is one of the oldest.

Li Yingrui was just a college student and an intern of BGI when he published his first paper in Nature Journal in 2007. Now, Li, 24, directs the bioinformatics department and its 1,500 computer scientists. He has become one of BGI's leading scientists with five papers published in Science Magazine and Nature Journal.

In BGI, college, or even high school students, lead cutting-edge projects and publish papers in top science journals. Yet despite the impressive work of these young scientists, their pay isn't so world-class. A recent college graduate gets about 3,000 yuan ($462) per month. The average monthly salary in Shenzhen is more than 4,000 yuan.

Having an army of scientists at a comparatively low cost contributes to BGI's competitiveness, Yang said.

At BGI, young people can work with world's leading scientists and participate in international projects," Yang said. "They also have the opportunity to lead research in new areas, and such motivation is more powerful than anything else."

The growing fame of BGI in the world shows China's efforts in promoting scientific advancement is starting to pay off, said Wang Jian, BGI's director.

"The scientific outlook on development is a key policy of China, and it requires the government to focus on supporting research facilities like BGI," Wang said.

In addition, China has been striving for progress in medical reform, agriculture and environmental protection, which in turn boosts bioscience research, he added.

In a visit to BGI on June 4, two days after it completed the sequencing of the bacterium, Xu Qin, mayor of Shenzhen, said the city will give all-out support to boost the leap-frog development of BGI.

Shenzhen, a boomtown near Hong Kong, is the base of some of China's most innovative companies such as ZTE and Huawei.