Genetics Pioneer George Church, BGI Aim to Develop Virus-Resistant Organisms at Newly Opened Genesis Institute in Shenzhen
William Clegg
DATE:  Oct 31 2017
/ SOURCE:  Yicai

(Yicai Global) Oct. 31 -- The recent opening of the George Church Institute of Regenesis in Shenzhen in China's southern Guangdong province, established in partnership with China's biggest genome sequencing firm, BGI Genomics Co. [SHE:300676] (BGI), presents an opportunity to accelerate the development of transformative technologies in the synthetic biology field including virus-resistant organisms, said genetic engineering pioneer Professor George Church in a recent exclusive interview with Yicai CEO Zhou Jiangong.

Professor George Church of Harvard University, also known as the Godfather of Genetics, recently teamed with BGI's Shenzhen Life Science Research Institute to set up the new facility, based on the national gene pool synthesis and editing platform.

On the development of the institute and its goal, Church said, "We are using it as a vehicle for testing new technologies, we have a companion institute in Boston that is developing transformative technologies. We'll be codeveloping those for synthetic biology in Shenzhen with BGI."

The cooperation will combine the advantages of both resources, focusing on three main areas, namely, the development of high-density DNA storage technology, natural products related to synthetic biology and medical applications for gene editing. A series of related international research projects are expected to commence next year.

The laboratory will carry out special animal research, involving changing the genetics of animals so that they are resistant to virus. Research has shown that changing the genetic code in proteins can create animals resistant to viruses, concept with far-reaching applications.

"It is difficult to complete studies of synthetic biology without reading DNA. I am interested in reading and rewriting DNA. The institute will be significant in embracing, applying, and accelerating the transformation of technology," he said.

George Church is very optimistic about the development and significance of advanced biotechnology, as well as its development prospects and significance. "This is very profound idea that you can make organisms resistant to viruses you haven't even studied or seen before. Every virus needs that genetic code in order to make copies of itself, and that's provided by the host. You can change it so the host is resistant to all viruses. That's one of our top applications for the new technology."

Church says there are three key implications of this technology, namely, combating zoonotic diseases, offsetting loss of productivity in the pastoral farming sector, and the facilitation of organ transplants from animals to help humans.

The extent of the cooperation depends on the progress of the two parties, mainly concerning synthetic biology (synthetic biology) focused on population genetic sequencing. BGI Genetics will contribute all investment and set up an internal business unit consisting of about 80 people.

"The cost of gene sequencing is also falling, even down to hundreds of dollars, in this regard, China is pulling ahead and the University of Science and Technology has demonstrated leadership. We're going to see non-invasive prenatal testing take off in a sequencing mode in China, where now millions of women are getting tested during pregnancy. So, all of these things indicate a high level of application and innovation in China in sequencing," Church said.

Church believes that the 600-dollar gene sequencing model for screening is not only significantly much cheaper, but also can promote gene sequencing in general.

Regarding the development and commercialization of devices for genetic sequencing, Church argues that there is no change in terms of the method, which is still done using the reading of a single molecule in order to see the four colors for analysis. "What's changed is the engineering of the whole system so that it is more compact, more reproducible, less expensive. There's also "next-next-generation" technology, which BGI can participate in," he said.

There are currently two directions for the popularized research of next-generation genome sequencing, he states. The first involves nanopore-technology, first developed by Church in the 1980's, which is able to fit millions or possibly billions of sequencing devices into a square centimeter, he says. The second direction is in situ, meaning it takes place inside the cells or tissue.

"Instead of breaking them up, you can leave them intact so that the cells retain their structure, and so for all of the same costs and quality, you can now get additional information almost for free on the structure of the cell. This can be very important in health and pathological illnesses," he said.

George Church is also a founder of Yizhen Biological Technology Co., headquartered in Hangzhou in China's eastern Zhejiang province. The firm uses genetic testing techniques to help medical institutions and individuals understand the risk of disease and reveal genetic characteristics. He is also on the advisory board at the DAMO Academy, part of Chinese internet giant Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.'s [NYSE:BABA] USD15 billion research and development efforts.

DAMO Academy is to home to a wider range of cutting-edge scientific and technological research, such as quantum computing, Big Data, the application of Big Data in medical analysis. "These may also be of interest to BGI so I think there are some opportunities for interactions but they are both totally independent effort. They were both proposed and developed so far independently but hopefully I can help bridge the two if that becomes appropriate," Church said.

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Keywords:   Exclusive,George Church,Virus-Resistant Organisms