|Challenge 5: How can developing
countries become ‘actors’ in the genome revolution?
study: Human and rice genome research in China, by
Professor Huan Ming Yang
Professor Yang is Director
of the Beijing Genomics Institute, China.
“China has done it
– so can you!”
Professor Huan Ming Yang
In centuries past, China made a great
contribution both to civilisation and to technology. Some
10,000 years ago, our ancestors began to cultivate rice;
8,000 years ago, they domesticated the wild pig; and 5,000
years ago, they started farming the silkworm. In the 20th
century we suffered greatly from World War II and the Cold
War, and were thus put at a disadvantage at the start of
the genetic revolution.
For years after Watson and Crick discovered
the double-helix structure of DNA, Chinese biologists were
not taught about genes. When genetic engineering opened
new avenues for biotechnology in the 1970s, many in China
still believed they could do biology without genetics. When
the International Human Genome Project (HGP) was launched,
sections of the Chinese media were still calling genomics
a ‘pseudo-science’, but scientists were becoming aware of
its potential. Gradually, we were able to overcome scepticism
from the inside and outside. China was the last country
to join HGP, but in record time it completed its promised
1% contribution to the project, filling all the gaps in
the so-called ‘Beijing region’ of the genome with 99.99%
certainty. In 2002, US President Bill Clinton officially
acknowledged this contribution.
China and HapMap
The International HapMap project aims
to chart genetic variation within the human genome. It should
result in a tool – called a haplotype map – that will greatly
simplify the hunt for gene variants that predispose humans
to polygenic diseases like hypertension and diabetes, or
that determine individual responses to treatment.
The strategy is based on the ‘common
disease – common variant’ hypothesis and on a striking finding:
although the ‘text’ of the human genome contains about 10
million sites where different ‘DNA letters’ (nucleotides)
commonly appear in different individuals, the whole genome
is organised in approximately 100,000 ancestral blocks,
inherited from a small number of African ancestors. In the
world population, each block consists of just a few variants
or ‘haplotypes’. With a haplotype map, the search for ‘susceptibility
genes’ can thus focus first on identifying haplotypes common
to people suffering from a disease, then zoom in on specific
China is interested in HapMap because,
for the first time in many years, an increasing number of
people in China are experiencing an excess of fine foods.
As a result, diseases such as hypertension and diabetes
have rocketed. Like Europe and the US, we have a great interest
in identifying the responsible gene variants. China is contributing
a sixth of the samples to be used in HapMap and 10% of the
The Beijing Genomics Institute
The cornerstone of China’s achievements
in genomics is the Beijing Genomics Institute. The institute
currently has two campuses, one in Beijing and another in
Hangzhou, south of Shanghai. It has over 500 staff members.
We are able to sequence the equivalent of 1.5% of the human
genome per day at very low cost: $1 per read. We have the
best computers made in China and over 150 bio-informaticists
working day and night.
In addition to our participation in
HGP and HapMap, we have focused on several non-human genomes.
We took competitors by surprise when, in only two months,
we sequenced the rice genome. Importantly, we have made
all our sequence data freely available to the whole world
so that people everywhere, and particularly in developing
countries, can develop improved rice varieties. An interesting
paradox is that the human genome has relatively few genes,
whereas the rice genome has many. A probable explanation
is that human gene products are polyfunctional, whereas
rice gene products are monofunctional.
With colleagues in Denmark, we have
now turned to the pig genome. We have generated many genetic
markers and have sequenced a million clones. This has brought
us close to completion of phase one. With colleagues in
the US and the UK, we intend to sequence the chicken genome.
This will be a first, as no bird genome has ever been sequenced.
We will also be focusing on a major protein source: soy.
In all of these projects, it is our intention to share our
sequence data with the entire world. We believe that scientists
everywhere should contribute to the genome-sequencing endeavour
and that people worldwide should benefit from it.
Genomics and ethics
We are intent on incorporating internationally
acknowledged ethical principles into our genomic studies
and applications. We are very conscious of our social responsibility.
Yet we are alarmed by the existence of double standards
– different rules for public and private research and by
the fact that in some countries it is legal to import but
illegal to produce certain products.
We object strongly to gene stealing,
a practice to which even distinguished colleagues at great
universities have stooped. For instance, under the cover
of ‘free medical care’, researchers from Harvard University
obtained blood samples from poor people in a remote mountainous
part of China, giving them only token compensation. The
Chairman of Harvard University has apologised, admitting
that this was wrong. We do not want this to happen again.
China has made a gigantic leap into
the genomics race. Our sequencing of the rice genome was
featured in Science, and the journal Scientific American
has named the Beijing Genomics Institute as ‘Research Leader
of the Year’. Chinese society has never before been so diverse,
so hopeful in the future, so confident in its people. And
never before has its potential for economic development
been so great. My message to developing countries is: you
can do it too!