Seattle’s history in genomics is long and storied. It’s home to organizations including the University of Washington, genomics pioneer Dr. Leroy Hood’s Institute for Systems Biology and many others have long made the city a center for genomics research.
Now they will have a new partner in town: BGI, a giant genomics research institute based in Shenzhen, China.
BGI announced a new West Coast Innovation Center Wednesday that will be co-located between Seattle and San Jose with the goal of fostering partnerships and innovation between BGI and institutions in the two hubs. It is the first center of its kind, but follows BGI’s trend of fostering international collaborations.
“The idea is really to stimulate the innovative collaboration or partnership between BGI and research institutions, universities, and potentially biotech industries in the United States,” Dr. Jian Wang, BGI’s founder and chairman, told GeekWire.
Dr. Yiwu He, CEO of BGI Groups USA, said the Seattle center will likely include a lab space one day but, for the moment, the company would work in the labs of partners in the city. The company has an existing lab in San Jose with just over 100 employees.
BGI is one of the largest genomic players in the world. It fuels large-scale human, plant, and animal genomics research through partnering with companies and organizations around the globe, offering research collaborations as well as technology transfer and genetic testing services. The company also pursues its own commercial operations.
BGI announced the opening of a small Seattle office in December to strengthen the partnerships it has with institutions in the area.
That includes work on precision medicine with the UW, an ongoing partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and work with the Allen Institute for Brain Science, as well as with Washington State University in Pullman, Wash. The organization’s current partnerships in the Pacific Northwest largely focus on health and agricultural research.
The new center will give BGI a strong foothold in the city to continue developing those partnerships and will also allow for easier faculty exchanges between BGI and partner institutions.
BGI chose Seattle because of the partners it already works with here and the city’s strong research community, but Seattle also holds a special importance for Wang: It was where he first became interested in doing genomics work, when he was a graduate student at the University of Washington in the early 1980s.
He and a group of other Chinese students were interested in taking part in the Human Genome project, particularly so they could get China involved in the project. They worked at the UW while trying to get support from China to take part.
“We had a very difficult time in the beginning, until 1988, when we joined the Chinese Academy of Science and got support from there and joined the Human Genome Project,” Wang said. He and the other BGI founders worked on one percent of the data for the project, quite a large amount of data.
A few years later, they split off from the Chinese Academy of Science to form BGI.
“At that time, we were the only one private research institute in China,” Wang said. All existing research institutes in the country were controlled by China’s government.
Today BGI’s work includes vast sequencing of genomes related to agriculture and health, with a humanitarian goal. Wang said the organization has sequenced all the DNA of crops like rice and wheat and has used that and other data to help introduce a nutritious grain alternative to impoverished Chinese farming communities.
BGI also works on health issues like cancers and Alzheimers. It was the only organization from China to sent scientists to West Africa during the Ebola outbreak, He said.
“It’s really critical for the whole biotech field,” Wang said of genomics. “Life started from the gene.”