Ten years after the mapping of the human genome, BGI has established itself as the world’s largest commercial genetic sequencer. The ranks of China’s college graduates are expanding faster than the country can employ them, and BGI is leveraging this cheap, educated labor pool. At the factory in Shenzhen, more than 3,000 employees (average age, 26) spend their days preparing DNA samples, monitoring sequencing machines, and piecing together endless strings of A’s, C’s, T’s, and G’s, the building blocks of genetic material.
“This is big data analysis,” says Wang Jun, BGI’s 36-year-old executive director. Wang, who regularly wears tennis shoes and untucked polo shirts, has published more than 35 articles in Science and Nature magazines and also teaches at the University of Copenhagen. Genomics, he says, is a new field and experts are being created from scratch. “We don’t need Ph.D.s to do this work,” Wang says. Instead, he believes genomics is best learned the old-fashioned way. “You just throw them in,” he says of BGI’s technicians. “The best way is hands-on experience.”