The twenty-mile drive from Hong Kong International Airport to the center of Shenzhen, in southern China, can take hours. There is customs to negotiate and a border to cross, but they aren’t the problem; the problem is the furious pace of commerce between the former British colony and one of the fastest-growing cities in the world. Trucks, cars, vans, and buses cram the roadways, ferrying laborers of all kinds at all times. Until the nineteen-eighties, when Deng Xiaoping designated the area as China’s first special economic zone, Shenzhen had been a tiny fishing village. Suddenly, eleven million people appeared, seemingly out of nowhere; factories sprang up, often housed in hastily constructed tower blocks.
The Gene Factory in China
JANUARY 6, 2014
Thirty years ago, there were a few guesthouses and little else. Today, a visitor can stay at the Four Seasons or the Ritz, shop for ten-thousand-dollar handbags at Hermès, and move around town in a chauffeured Bentley. Yet Shenzhen has remained a factory town. At various times, the city has served as China’s Detroit, its garment district, and its Silicon Valley. Now, as the world’s scientists focus with increasing intensity on transforming the genetic codes of every living creature into information that can be used to treat and ultimately prevent disease, Shenzhen is home to a different kind of factory: B.G.I., formerly called Beijing Genomics Institute, the world’s largest genetic-research center. With a hundred and seventy-eight machines to sequence the precise order of the billions of chemicals within a molecule of DNA, B.G.I. produces at least a quarter of the world’s genomic data—more than Harvard University, the National Institutes of Health, or any other scientific institution.
Much of modern molecular biology and microbiology has been based on the effort to decipher the basic code of life, which is made up of four nucleotides: adenine, thymine, cytosine, and guanine. Specific strings of those molecules—there are three billion pairs in the human genome—are arranged together to make genes; genes, in turn, produce the proteins that we need to survive. Since 1995, when Craig Venter sequenced the first bacterium, biologists have been on a crusade to catalogue the DNA of nearly every species on earth. No group has been more aggressive in its attempt to produce those maps than B.G.I.: the company has already processed the genomes of fifty-seven thousand people. B.G.I. also has sequenced many strains of rice, the cucumber, the chickpea, the giant panda, the Arabian camel, the yak, a chicken, and forty types of silkworm. None of those endeavors are quite as odd as they may seem. Genomic research has shown that the human activity responsible for climate change has also caused a serious decline in the panda population. Silkworms have played a central role in the Chinese economy for thousands of years. B.G.I. has also sequenced the Tibetan antelope, the coronavirus responsible for sars, and the DNA of a four-thousand-year-old man, known as Inuk, obtained from a tuft of his hair that was discovered in Greenland’s permafrost. . . .