technologyreview | BGI-Shenzhen, once known as the Beijing Genomics Institute, has burst from relative obscurity to become the world’s most prolific sequencer of human, plant, and animal DNA. In 2010, with the aid of a $1.58 billion line of credit from China Development Bank, BGI purchased 128 state-of-the-art DNA sequencing machines for about $500,000 apiece. It now owns 156 sequencers from several manufacturers and accounts for some 10 to 20 percent of all DNA data produced globally. So far, it claims to have completely sequenced some 50,000 human genomes—far more than any other group.
BGI’s sheer size has already put Chinese gene research on the map. Those same economies of scale could also become an advantage as comprehensive gene readouts become part of everyday medicine. The cost of DNA sequencing is falling fast. In a few years, it’s likely that millions of people will want to know what their genes predict about their health. BGI might be the one to tell them.
The institute hasn’t only initiated a series of grandly conceived science projects. (In January, it announced it had determined the DNA sequence of not one but 90 varieties of chickpeas.) It’s also pioneered a research-for-hire business to decode human genomes in bulk, taking orders from the world’s top drug companies and universities. Last year, BGI even started to install satellite labs inside foreign research centers and staff them with Chinese technicians.
BGI’s rise is regarded with curiosity and some trepidation, not just because of the organization’s size but also because of its opportunistic business approach (it has a center for pig cloning, dabbles in stem-cell research, and runs a diagnostics lab). The institute employs 4,000 people, as many as a midsize university—1,000 in its bioinformatics division alone. Like Zhao, most are young—the average age is 27—and some sleep in company dormitories. The average salary is $1,500 a month.
Ten years ago, the international Human Genome Project was finishing up the first copy of the human genetic code at a cost of $3 billion. Thanks to a series of clever innovations, the cost to read out the DNA in a person’s genome has since fallen to just a few thousand dollars. Yet that has only created new challenges: how to store, analyze, and make sense of the data. According to BGI, its machines generate six terabytes of data each day.
Zhang Yong, 33, a BGI senior researcher, predicts that within the next decade the cost of sequencing a human genome will fall to just $200 or $300 and BGI will become a force in assembling a global “bio-Google”—it will help “organize all the world’s biological information and make it universally accessible and useful.”