BGI investor: It is the database they are building that will make them formidable

BGI CEO Jun Wang

The Financial Times has taken a look inside Chinese sequencing giant BGI and the implications of its mission to sequence the genomes of one million humans, one million microorganisms and one million plants and animals.

BGI has been beavering away on the project for a couple of years, but expects work to accelerate later in 2015 when it introduces a population-scale sequencing system based on the technology it gained in the acquisition of Complete Genomics. The sequencing initiative plays to two of China's competitive advantages: Its huge population and relatively cheap workforce. When paired with large-scale sequencing technology, the combination could allow BGI to match any rival data gathering programs.

Backers of BGI see this as the edge that will shape its future. "Most people only see them as a service provider for DNA analysis. It is the database they are building that will make them formidable," a BGI investor said. In January, BGI revealed it is planning to gather genomic, transcriptomic, epigenomic, metabolomic and microbiome data from one million people. J. Craig Venter's Human Longevity is gathering similar data and aiming to sequence one million genomes by 2020.

What BGI will do with the data and whether it has the skills to get the most from the resource are as yet unanswered questions. The company is split between pure research and commercial work--much like early U.S. computing pioneers Bell Labs and Xerox Parc--and is conscious of the balancing act this necessitates. "If we are too commercial, we lose sight of the future. But if we are only thinking of the future, that isn't suitable either," BGI CEO Jun Wang said.

- read the FT feature