BGI

BGI is now the world’s largest genomics laboratory and one of China’s most widely known and important scientific institutions. Known as Huada Jiyin in mandarin, the Beijing-based BGI made a name for itself in 1999 by contributing to the international Human Genome Project. In 2007, BGI relocated to the southern city of Shenzhen, adjacent to Hong Kong, with the intention of forging a new path for itself.

I have been visiting and studying BGI since 2014. In 2017, I spent the summer in Shenzhen doing fieldwork in the city and at BGI. I have published on BGI here and here. I have also written about electronics in Shenzhen, and in blogs here, here, here, and here.

I am currently finishing up a book on BGI that will be published in 2022 (working title DNA Revolutions: Science and Life in a Rising China). DNA Revolutions tracks the history and development of BGI. It is partly a history of the lab through the history of the city of Shenzhen. It aims to track what new institutional forms biomedicine is taking on in China and hence to contribute to our understanding of what “forms of life” are emerging in the “Chinese century.”

As a sort of preview of the book, I’m posting here five “iconic” images of BGI that represent what BGI is and what it is trying to achieve.

  1. “My Life in My Hands” This poster was displayed at the entrance to the BGI headquarters building in Yantian. The iconography is at once biotechnological (taking control of life/DNA) and communist (the massive hand crushing DNA).
  2. Basketball. A poster on the wall of the lab celebrates the BGI basketball team. BGI is not only trying to re-engineer life, but also engineer a specific kind of community within the lab. This is reminiscent of the kind of start-up culture that is found in Silicon Valley, but with a Chinese twist.
  3. Genebook “To make advances in biomedicine, first make yourself healthy.” BGI’s community is also a healthy one. The lab provides a range of ways, from food to tracking and monitoring devices, to ensure its own members remain healthy. Wang Jian, one of the lab’s founders, attracted controversy for stating that it would be an embarrassment if any member of the BGI bore a child with birth defects.
  4. Millet, millet, milletOne of BGI’s goals to promote health and well-being is to develop new foods based on biotechnology and agrotechnology. BGI sells a range of food products, often “testing” them on their own employees. This is a spirit distilled from BGI-produced genetically modified millet (an ancient crop in China).
  5. “Tipsy” This is a BGI product known as “Tipsy.” It consists of a “spit kit” that the consumer spits into and returns to the lab. The lab will then test for whether the individual has the gene that produces the “Asian flush reaction” when consuming alcohol. This kind of “playful” product shares much in common with other fun, consumer-oriented, electronic devices sold elsewhere in Shenzhen.

Stay tuned for more.