Emily Singer

A View from Emily Singer

Outsourcing Genome Sequencing

China is poised to become the world’s sequencing powerhouse.

  • February 12, 2010

In January, the Beijing Genomics Institute, now known just as BGI, announced it had ordered 126 of Illumina’s newest sequencing machines. In a column for Science Progress, stem cell scientist Jeanne Loring notes, “This is the largest order of sequencers ever, anywhere. At a retail price of $690,000 each, even if the machines are discounted, the purchase of this instrumentation alone is a phenomenal investment of at least $60 million in a single year. This purchase will bring the total number of sequencers at BGI to 157, nearly twice the number of instruments at the largest sequencing center in the United States, the Broad Institute at MIT, which will bring its total to 89 this year.”

That could have both economic and scientific implications, she writes.

What’s the bottom line? The Chinese government has made a decision to invest in a technology that is clearly the way of the future. The Chinese will be able to achieve with DNA sequencing just what they attained in the manufacturing industry: the ability to do it cheaper and faster than anyone else. This potential for technical superiority raises two important issues for American academics and businesses.

First, there is the simple matter of economics. I predict that U.S. scientists and companies will find in the next few years that their funding goes further if they subcontract sequencing projects to China. As the demand for DNA sequencing for medical applications grows, we will be sending more and more of our money, and our jobs, to China.

Second, China’s sequencing power has the potential to tip the balance in innovation, the inventions and ideas that currently underlie the success of U.S. biotechnology. For a while, at least, Americans will still have the edge in publishing scientific papers using sequencing, because in the Western-dominated scientific publication industry, explaining the importance of the data is as critical as producing the data. However, China’s investment in sequencing will allow the country to build a valuable intellectual property portfolio because new discoveries will be made at a furious pace.

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