Wang Jian, Co-founder and Chairman of the Board of Directors of BGI Group
2023 is BGI Group’s 24th anniversary and the 20th anniversary of the culmination of the Human Genome Project. It’s also the 80th anniversary of Erwin Schrödinger's "What is Life?" lectures.
In the pursuit of understanding life, a multi-century journey, science has revealed complexities that surpass imagination. At the crossroads of history, where technological progress intersects with philosophical inquiry, the words of Schrödinger carry profound significance: 'What is Life?' - a question echoing through time and resonating in scientific endeavor and annals of scientific literature.
BGI Group has been dedicated to unraveling life's intricacies for more than two decades. Established in 1999, BGI participated in the Human Genome Project - a venture bridging humanity’s quest for self-understanding. Through that experience and with today’s technologies, BGI is helping to cast light on mysteries once shrouded in the mists of the unknown.
September 2023 commemorates the 24th anniversary of BGI's founding. Wang Jian, Co-founder and Chairman of the Board of Directors of BGI Group, delves into some insights and achievements that have defined BGI's trajectory, tracing its progress as it navigates genomics' intricate landscapes.
Question: Starting from your undergraduate studies, how many years have you been engaged in life science research?
Wang Jian: I went to university in 1976. So, it's been 47 years, almost 50 years now.
Question: If we review BGI's 24-year history in the context of 1980s or even a longer historical perspective, how do you perceive "What is Life?" today?
Wang Jian: Perhaps we need to look even further, back to 60 years ago. (The experiences from 60 years ago) have left an indelible mark on my mind, particularly in terms of agriculture and food security. That's why BGI's research in this area is a must. Later, in the mid-1970s, after I pursued a medical degree, I pondered what I could do - could I help disabled people, or ensure that people no longer go hungry? This was my personal feeling back then, which turned into an obsession, a deep passion, an original aspiration that hasn't changed over the years. That's why BGI adheres to the "use of genomics technology for the benefit of humanity" and emphasizes "starting with ourselves."
Question: Over the years, did you anticipate that the study of life would be so complex?
Wang Jian: The study of life is a process of gradual understanding. I realized that the Human Genome Project might serve as an underlying technology. This understanding came after over a decade of research. With the underlying technology in place, does it solve numerous problems? Not exactly. When the cost of sequencing a human genome dropped to around $1,000, we discovered that the issues that precision medicine aims to address couldn't be solved only by genomics - it's a complex system.
Thus, the concept of "omics" came about - we explored the potential of using multiple omics to tackle problems. As we embarked on this new journey, we discovered various external influences, environmental impacts, environmental microorganisms, gut microorganisms, respiratory tract microorganisms, and the effects of different environmental elements - physical, chemical, or microbial - everything influences our lives. Furthermore, we realized that our thoughts, feelings, and psychological changes also have a profound impact on our lives, health, and behavioral decisions, extending beyond our initial expectations.
Question: Regarding research on life, what breakthroughs and progress have been made?
Wang Jian: The moment life originated is akin to the moment of the Big Bang. Once the most primitive replicable molecule formed, DNA emerged, and an ancestral bacterium came into existence, that's the origin of life.
There's an issue of the origin of consciousness. We approach this from two directions at BGI: one through studying mammals, from mice to monkeys, moving from lower-level to higher-level creatures, ultimately reaching primates, with humans being the pinnacle. We've already completed a portion of the cellular research in mice, and on July 13th this year, we published the cellular structure of macaques.
What is the origin of the brain? We have a preliminary research plan for it. We start by examining the first cell with a neural impulse, tracing back to sponge cells. The earliest formation of neural network cells, with some representativeness, is seen in jellyfish cells. We begin from there, progressing from single cells to multicellular organisms, spinal cord cells, and then more advanced amphibians.
Our current focus is to try and produce a partial schematic or cellular framework of the human brain by 2024. The subsequent step is to complete the full framework, and most importantly, we aim to create a connectivity map. Just like the Human Genome Project, once completed, this will pave the way for future engineering research.
Question: In addressing the question "What is Life?", what approach has BGI taken?
Wang Jian: Over these many years, BGI has revolved around fundamental human concerns. Initially, it was addressing the common issues - staying healthy, avoiding hunger, making the world a more beautiful place, ensuring material abundance for all.
Then, we moved on to tackle more fundamental issues, while simultaneously sustaining ourselves through commercial development. This includes endeavors in controlling the occurrence of tumor, cardiovascular, and cerebrovascular diseases, as well as infectious diseases - not just in terms of prevention and detection but also treatment. Moreover, we emphasize starting from ourselves.
In the realm of agriculture, BGI is actively engaged in practices related to ecology, carbon neutrality, desert transformation, restoring desolate lands, perennial species, and soil improvement.
I think these endeavors are all part of answering the questions "What is Life?".
Question: BGI was established to participate the Human Genome Project. In its over two decades history and exploration in life science, what major stages has it undergone?
Wang Jian: The stages that BGI has gone through are quite interesting. Its development and transformation have been driven by technological progress and breakthroughs, not a single visionary idea or a major societal change. Therefore, I have always believed that the history of human evolution is the history of the interaction between science, technology, and economics. In the course of BGI's development, it's been a history driven by the core forces of technological change and advancement.
Question: There's an assessment that Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel, in their research, "saw things others hadn't seen before, suddenly, we had a new way of observing the world." What "things others hadn't seen before" has BGI observed in the pursuit of understanding life?
Wang Jian: Everything we observe is something others haven't seen before. With genomics technology at our disposal, we're able to observe many things that were previously unobservable. We can analyze life with methods that weren't available back then. For example, we believed that the Human Genome Project was crucial at the very beginning. By having a blueprint of each person's genome, we can understand how we're influenced by genes and how they relate to rare diseases and hereditary conditions. This is why we steadfastly pursued the Human Genome Project.
Question: Schrödinger used the metaphor of a "codebook" to describe life and genes. What is your description of life?
Wang Jian: Life has two aspects. The first is an accessible codebook in a molecular and atomic perspective. The basic elements like nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and iron are clear, as are the basic molecular formulas of the body. The central dogma is also clear—from DNA to RNA, to proteins, and to small molecules.
But the latter part of "What is Life?" is unclear - how a fertilized egg becomes a person's nose, ears, and eyes? This is not clear. That’s why we propose, firstly, understanding the core issues of birth, aging, illness, and death, as well as the dogma of space and time.
Brain science is just getting started, and that's why BGI has established a team to explore the origin of consciousness. One aspect is understanding the origins of consciousness from structural and molecular level, while it also involves investigating particles such as photons, electrons, and quantum phenomena.
Question: BGI has turned 24. Could you say a few words of encouragement for the staff?
Wang Jian: Let's live healthier, happier, more productive lives. Let's make a difference. Thank you all!