China opens first national gene bank, aiming to house hundreds of millions of samples

Data previously stored in facilities in US, Japan and Britain now gathered under single roof

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 September, 2016, 3:17pm
UPDATED : Friday, 23 September, 2016, 12:07am

China’s first national gene bank, claimed to be the largest of its kind in the world, officially opened on Thursday to store and carry out research on hundreds of millions of genetic samples.

The centre, dubbed China’s Noah’s Ark by mainland media, aims to collect 300 million genetic samples at its base in Shenzhen when all two phases are complete

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The much anticipated ­platform is to preserve, manage and utilise the genome data and biological samples of Chinese characteristics.

With an investment of 780 million yuan (HK$900 million) for phase one, the China National GeneBank was the fourth of its kind after similar centres in the United States, Britain and Japan, People’s Daily reported. China’s bank will share data with the other three.

“We hope to make the gene bank China’s, and even the world’s, biggest biological information data centre, like Google but in the field of life and health data,” Mei Yonghong, the director of the centre, was quoted as ­saying.

Cao Yu, principal investigator of the National Centre for Protein Science in Shanghai, said the bank would serve as a library of raw genome data to benefit scientists across an array of fields, especially medicine, pharmacology and biomedicine. “Competition in precision medicine in the future will rely on the acquirement and analysis of gene resources,” Mei was quoted as saying.

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The data now stored in ­Shenzhen was previously housed at the National Centre for Biotechnology Information in the US, the European Bioinformatics Institute in Britain and the DNA Data Bank of Japan.

Cao said it was in China’s national interest to have its own gene bank rather than storing samples in other countries. “Cooperation is the global trend but it is more secure to preserve data in China since the variations among the genomes from different races could be used in both good and evil ways,” Cao said.

The site had 10 ­million gene samples and would include a biological database, samples of living organisms, plus a genome editing platform, according to the ­Xinhua report.

It is the largest gene bank of its kind in the world, with a library of animal, plant, microorganism and human body cell samples, ­according to the report.

Genetic information stored includes a cancer database with 3,000 samples, information on 50,000 genome mutations, and databases on birth defects, plants, birds and crops.

Dozens of refrigerators can store samples at temperatures as low as minus 200 degrees Celsius, while researchers have access to 150 domestically developed desktop gene sequencing machines and a US$20 million Revolocity machine, known as a “super­sequencer”, according to the report.

Cao said new samples could be collected and stored directly but their DNA data needed to be decoded and verified before being saved at the bank.

The gene bank will be ­administered by a council of ­government agencies, and is supported by the Beijing Genomics Institute.