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Conference - Towards sustainable agriculture for developing countries: options from life sciences and biotechnologies
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Proceedings

Challenge 5: How can developing countries become ‘actors’ in the genome revolution?

Case 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


Background

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 gene variants.

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 work.

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.

Conclusion

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!

   
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