Dr. Jin Xin, Chief Scientist and Director of the Institute of Precision Health Research at BGl-Research
In the ever-evolving landscape of life sciences, the profound impact of the Human Genome Project has reshaped the boundaries of scientific exploration.
A conversation with Dr. Jin Xin, Chief Scientist and Director of the Institute of Precision Health Research at BGl-Research, and a pioneering figure at the forefront of this transformation, sheds light on the revolutionary influence of genomic research and its intricate interplay with cutting-edge technologies.
From unraveling the genetic code to embracing data-driven paradigms, Dr. Jin's insights reveal the dynamic intersection of hypothesis-driven inquiries and the burgeoning realm of big data, inspiring the next generation to navigate a world where curiosity and innovation converge to unlock the mysteries of life itself.
Question: What revolutionary impact has the Human Genome Project had on life science?
Jin Xin: Before the Human Genome Project, many people might have viewed life science as an experimental discipline, involving numerous experiments, observations, and statistics to discover patterns and validate hypotheses. However, our approach in the Human Genome Project, known as the "shotgun sequencing" method, fragmented the genome into pieces, which were then assembled using computers. This method significantly accelerated the completion of the Human Genome Project.
Simultaneously, this approach provided an alternative path for future research in life science, or rather, a different research paradigm. After generating vast amounts of data, we use computational methods or new artificial intelligence techniques to uncover patterns within the data. When combined with hypothesis-driven research paradigms, this approach greatly accelerates new discoveries in the field of life science.
Question: Some say that we have entered the ‘post-genomic era’. What era do you believe life science has reached?
Jin Xin: I lean toward the idea that the current era of life science is characterized by the convergence of big data and hypothesis-driven research. Hypothesis-driven research remains crucial in life science as it addresses many core questions. However, big data has played a significant role in driving new discoveries in life science.
We are continually building various foundational datasets and information repositories, starting with the human genome mapping in the Human Genome Project, followed by initiatives like the human haplotype map, the Thousand Genomes Project, the Human Cell Atlas, and maps of gene expression and protein profiles. These datasets form the basis of data in the field of life science.
On this foundation, many studies that previously required significant time for resampling and data generation can now be analyzed and validated directly within these databases. The integration of data science with life science has brought about profound changes, allowing us to discover new patterns through various methods. Big data is causing a paradigm shift in life science.
Question: How do you perceive the statement "Using genomics to benefit mankind"?
Jin Xin: Life science is essentially the digitization of life. In the age of the internet, vast amounts of data are continuously generated and accumulated. However, the rate of data accumulation in the field of life science is currently not as fast. When comparing the data from the entire human society with the growth rate, amplitude, and proportion of data from life science, it's evident that there's room for improvement.
With the emergence of new technologies, life data is undergoing explosive growth. For instance, a recent study based on BGI's spatio-temporal omics technology, Stereo-seq, produced 300 terabytes (Tb) of data for mapping the macaque brain cortex. This would have been unimaginable in the past, and it's just the beginning.
Currently, less than 1% of the global population have had their genome data analyzed. Genetic data is the most fundamental and foundational data in life data analysis. We haven't even touched or understood the extent of this data, and the impact it will have on comprehending life, aging, sickness, and death.
Furthermore, how can we develop better health management plans, new treatment methods, drugs, and more, based on this data? I'm increasingly convinced that exploration in these related fields can be further accelerated. These efforts are laying the groundwork for a genuine understanding of intelligent life. Once we acquire such abilities, I believe it will be a truly significant leap for human society.
Question: Over the past 20 years, what path has BGI taken in observing the world and understanding life?
Jin Xin: The genome is the original code of life. To understand this code, we must observe life across different times, spaces, and dimensions. Therefore, we developed single-cell omics and spatio-temporal omics technologies, opening up a completely new world for us. In the past, many projects aimed to create a genome map or identify risk-associated genes for diseases. However, starting last year, we've successively mapped the embryonic development of mice, the brain regeneration of salamanders. And this year, we’ve mapped the macaque brain cortex cell map. These achievements are made possible because of the fundamental core technologies.
Question: What do you think of BGI’s international cooperation?
Jin Xin: We must fully embrace international cooperation. Each country excels in different fields and directions. Under the management of scientific ethics, we must adhere to local regulations on data management, collaborate with local institutions, and ensure compliance with standards. As new things emerge, if we don't collaborate, we might work in isolation and fall behind.
Question: BGI has always emphasized innovation. What role do young people play in this process?
Jin Xin: Young people are undoubtedly crucial. The greatest strength of young people is their fearlessness in the face of challenges. Nowadays, we indeed need young individuals’ fresh perspectives and diverse voices to bring in new ideas and impact.
For a system to survive it needs diversity. Young people inject new diversity into this system, making it more robust. We're willing to provide equal opportunities to all in this process, allowing everyone to fully develop here.
Question: What message do you have for young people entering the field of life science in the future?
Jin Xin: To the young talents interested in the field of life science, I hope you maintain your curiosity and continue to explore the world with enthusiasm. We'll have more and more new tools and new technologies to support your explorations and realize what you envisioned. What was unimaginable, fantastical, and beyond reach is now attainable. You can use these tools to address the questions you want to answer—what can already be done today.