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China pushing the envelope on science, and sometimes ethics

Chinese researcher and data analyst Zhao Bowen in the lab of BGI, which has insulated itself from the government's dictates.
Chinese researcher and data analyst Zhao Bowen in the lab of BGI, which has insulated itself from the government's dictates. (Yuan Shuiling/imaginechina)

Over the past few years, scientists at BGI sequenced the genes of a chicken, a silkworm, a panda, a strain of rice and 4,000-year-old human remains from Greenland.

In January, BGI made the biggest purchase of genome sequencing equipment ever, buying 128 ultra-high-tech machines from California-based Illumina. With that one acquisition, BGI could very well surpass the entire gene-sequencing output of the United States.

Shunning dictates

Inside the 11-story facility, the vibe is pure Silicon Valley start-up: shorts, flip-flops, ankle bracelets, designer eyewear and a random tattoo. Zhao came to BGI on a summer internship last year to work on cucumbers. Now a full-time employee while continuing his studies, Zhao is turning his attention to a topic Western researchers have shied away from because of ethical worries: Zhao plans to study the genes of 1,000 of his best-performing classmates at a top high school in Beijing and compare them, he said, "with 1,000 normal kids."

BGI's secret -- and the secret to a lot of China's best scientific institutes -- seems to be insulating itself from China's government bureaucracy. BGI started as the Beijing Genomics Institute in the early 2000s but left Beijing in 2007 after the Ministry of Science and Technology tried to dictate what it could and could not study.

The Shenzhen city government offered it millions of dollars in grants and operating expenses to move south. Last year, BGI received a $1.5 billion line of credit from the China Development Bank.

"We came here because it was the best place for us to pursue science," said Yang Huanming, the institute's founder. "We're not interested in politics."

By far, China's most successful research institution is the National Institute for Biological Sciences, known as NIBS, which is responsible for half of the peer-reviewed publications in China. The institute's 23 principal investigators, its director and deputy director are all returnees from the United States. It's also the only major research institute in China that does not have a Communist Party secretary.

Luo Minmin, 37, a neurobiologist, returned to China six years ago after getting his PhD from the University of Pennsylvania and completing a postdoctoral research stint at Duke. Luo said he has a big budget at NIBS and greater research freedom than he would have in the United States. He's studying a gene involved in attention-deficit disorder.

"If I had stayed in America, the chances of making a discovery would have been lower," he said. "Here, people are willing to take risks. They give you money, and essentially you can do whatever you want."


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