11. Developing the Rice Genome in China

Huanming Yang BGI (Beijing Genomics Institute), China

In this presentation, I will share with you information about the development of the rice genome as well as other genomes in China, through international collaboration and international sharing of scientific data.

The field of genomics was cultivated by the Human Genome Project (HGP). It was important to China that its scientists made a contribution, even a small one, to the HGP.

China was a latecomer. One of my colleagues wrote: “The work was already underway in other countries, and China was way behind the curve. But Huanming convinced me that China’s involvement would represent a major advance for his country and for the Beijing Genome Center.” Our idea was that with just a simple contribution from us, together with all other countries, we could benefit from this project as could all the people in the world. It was so expensive that China alone could not afford it. That was the reason for us to support international scientific collaboration.

As a member of the International Bioethics Committee of UNESCO, I strongly proposed that the most important and urgent issue in bioethics at present is the immediate release and free sharing of the human genome data. In a period of 5 months, I submitted four proposals for free sharing of human genome data. Then on May 9, 2000, the director-general of UNESCO issued a statement on the free availability of human genome data. This led to the Group of 8 (G8) communiqué of the Okinawa meeting in July 2000, as well as the United Nations Millennium Declaration on September 19, 2000, to ensure free access to information on the human genome sequence.

As a unique member state from the developing countries in the HGP consortium, China’s contribution is not only a technical accomplishment, but also a recognized effort in the free sharing of human genome data. As Michael Morgan, who was responsible for the Wellcome Trust projects on genomics, said, “China’s unswerving support of open data release was an important factor in ensuring that the human genome sequence is the property of the whole world.” John Sulston, the leader of the HGP of the United Kingdom, said, “I especially salute the Chinese colleagues, who have affirmed the Human Genome Project’s common ownership by all mankind.”

The Human Genome Project has established a brilliant example for international collaboration and data sharing. With no participation in the HGP or no international data sharing, genomics in China today would not be so advanced.

With regard to the rice genome data, we freely shared and published the first draft sequence of the rice genome in April 2002. It was a big event in the history of natural science in China. That is the reason that the editorial department of Science magazine went to Beijing for the news release: “Science magazine honoring China’s sequencing of the rice genome.” I would like to quote from Science: “This team deserves enormous credit for their outstanding world-class accomplishment in a remarkably short time.”

It is true that the whole job was done in 74 days. Then we released all the data. Our database on the rice genome has been one of the most popular databases in global genomics. If regarding citations as one indicator of the impact of that paper, we are proud to see that our paper has been cited about 2,000 times up to now, and the citations are still increasing. The number of specific publications in one field could be another indication of the impact of the work in that field. Since the release and the sharing of the rice genome data, the research on rice has dramatically increased and has outnumbered that of wheat, though they were more or less the same at the starting line.

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