Hong Kong (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Hong Kong is poised to become an international gene sequencing and genomics research hub, thanks to the work of the Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI), mainland China’s leading genomic company.
BGI set up its genome sequencing research lab thanks to a 10 billion yuan low-interest loan from the state-run China Development Bank. Working with supercomputers, BGI Hong Kong will theoretically be able to sequence 1,300 human genomes every day
Genomic sequencing is the basis of today’s biotechnology. In medicine, it helps to identify genetic abnormalities and hereditary diseases, and to produce new drugs. In agriculture, the genes of crops are modified to enhance desirable features and eliminate undesirable ones. In biology, researchers study the evolution of organisms by pinpointing their genetic mutations, or changes in the genetic sequences that were passed on to the next generation by natural selection.
“To put that in perspective, [BGI] has about the same capacity as the three largest genome centres in the United States, including the Broad Institute, Washington University and Baylor College of Medicine combined," said Kevin Davies, editor-in-chief of the American magazine Bio-IT World.
At present, BGI is aiming to sequence the genomes of 1,000 plants and animals and 10,000 microbes to expand its own database of genomic information. It has also launched an ambitious but controversial project to hunt for the genes responsible for human intelligence.
It is also planning to market its research. The institute has in fact acquired one important client—the pharmaceutical company Merck. Other drug firms such as GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer, Lilly and Novartis have also shown interest in the Hong Kong facility.
More than 1,600 specialists work for BGI, between Hong Kong and Shenzhen, all under the age of 30, more than any other one bioinformatics centre in Europe or the United States, said Sumio Sugano, bioscience professor at the University of Tokyo. The mainland's cheaper labour market as well as its lower computing and capital expenditure make it possible.
In any event, BGI has already published some of its research in some of the world's leading scientific journals, such as Nature and Science.
Kelvin Lee, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Delaware, said that because life-sciences research relies heavily on access to large amounts of high-quality sequencing data, BGI is capable of providing the foundation of knowledge needed for the study of genomics to move forward this century.
Dennis Lo Yuk-ming, a professor of medicine at Chinese University, hopes the presence of such a large facility will show that “Asian scientists can compete at the highest level on the world stage”.