January 19, 2011

Ten years ago I was chatting with a friend who runs a research team at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, just down the road from me here in Long Island. An immigrant from mainland China, my friend was in touch with genomics research over there in the People’s Republic. Why didn’t he move back there? I asked him. Surely his line of work was much less constrained by ethical and legal issues in China. (I had just written an article on this topic.)

“They have no money!” he replied. Apparently Chinese genomics research wasn’t sufficiently funded to engage his interest.

How things have changed:

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.

Ten billion is a lot of yuan (around $1.5 billion), and there is plenty more where that came from.

Chinese genomics research is casting its net wide”€”wider than would be thought proper in our own gene-shy public culture. One of BGI’s programs is studying the genetic basis for IQ’s heritability, variously estimated by researchers at between 40 and 80 percent. Prevailing dogma in the US, however, insists the correct number is zero percent, so that no such work could be done here, certainly not on billion-dollar soft loans from the feds.

This year, according to a very respectable science journal, will be the year of the $1,000 genome sequencing, and the steep reductions in unit cost will continue into the foreseeable future on a sort of Moore’s Law principle. With her uninhibited interest in the human genome, China may be the first entire nation to be sequenced.

That will vastly expand the database for data miners to burrow into. They will undoubtedly discover deep new seams of knowledge about humanity”€”our diseases and capabilities, our bodies and minds, our history and prospects, our unities and divisions.

If the Chinese can keep their nation in one piece”€”the present regime has already lasted longer than 19 of the 34 dynasties listed on W. M. Hawley’s Oriental Culture Chart #20a“€”they will own the coming age’s killer technology. Let’s hope they don’t take the word “killer” too literally.



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