DNA Dream Team

China Pictorial (English) - - Contents - Text by Zhang Xue

This March, the in­ter­na­tional aca­demic jour­nal Sci­ence pub­lished the find­ings of Chi­nese sci­en­tists in sev­eral pa­pers as its fea­ture story. Re­searchers at Tian­jin Univer­sity, Ts­inghua Univer­sity and Bgi-shen­zhen con­structed four syn­thetic active eu­kary­otic chro­mo­somes through ex­act match­ing of the syn­thetic genome with a de­signed se­quence for the first time. Their work marked an­other mile­stone af­ter con­struc­tion of prokary­otic chro­mo­somes and is ex­pected to her­ald a new era wherein hu­mans can “de­sign, re­con­struct and re­model life.”

The Syn­thetic Yeast Genome Project (Sc2.0) was launched by Amer­i­can ge­neti­cist Jef D. Boeke. Re­search in­sti­tutes in coun­tries in­clud­ing the United States, China, Bri­tain, France, Aus­tralia and Singapore par­tic­i­pated and co­op­er­ated with each other in the project that aimed to re­design and con­struct yeast’s 16 sets of chro­mo­somes. Of the six chro­mo­somes syn­the­sized in the con­text of the project, four have been com­pleted by the Chi­nese team so far.

Dr. Dai Jun­biao, a spe­cial as­so­ciate re­search fel­low from the School of Life Sciences at Ts­inghua Univer­sity, led his team in com­plet­ing the de­sign and syn­the­sis of the long­est eu­kary­otic chro­mo­some (syn­thetic chro­mo­some 12 or synxii) of the four.

China’s Con­tri­bu­tion to In­ter­na­tional Ge­netic Re­search

On a swel­ter­ing July day, Dr. Dai sat down with China Pic­to­rial in his lab at Ts­inghua Univer­sity. Ex­cept for busi­ness trips, Dai works ev­ery day at his lab re­gard­less of the weather.

The 43-year-old was born in Jiangsu Prov­ince. Af­ter re­ceiv­ing a bach­e­lor’s de­gree and a mas­ter’s de­gree from Nan­jing Univer­sity and Ts­inghua Univer­sity re­spec­tively, he re­ceived a PH.D. in the De­part­ment of Ge­net­ics, Devel­op­ment and Cell Bi­ol­ogy from Iowa State Univer­sity. He then stud­ied at the School of Medicine of Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity as a post­doc­toral fel­low. Dur­ing his stay at the univer­sity, he re­ceived the Al­bert Lehninger Award named af­ter a renowned Amer­i­can bio­chemist in bio­genet­ics.

Dai’s in­volve­ment with the Sc2.0 project also be­gan in the United States. Jef D. Boeke, his men­tor at Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity, first launched the Sc2.0 project. “When I joined my men­tor’s re­search group in 2006, dis­cus­sions on the Sc2.0 project had just be­gun,” Dai re­calls. “Five years later, I par­tic­i­pated in syn­the­sis work on the first yeast chro­mo­some in his lab.”

Later that year af­ter fin­ish­ing his re­search at Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity, Dai re­ceived an in­vi­ta­tion from his alma mater Ts­inghua Univer­sity and re­turned to China to es­tab­lish his own lab as part of the “the Re­cruit­ment Pro­gram of Global Ex­perts,” also known as “the Thou­sand Tal­ents Plan,” which aimed to at­tract top global tal­ent to China.

“Yeast has 16 sets of chro­mo­somes al­to­gether,” Dai ex­plains. “It took Amer­i­can sci­en­tists nearly five years to con­struct two of them, and no one knows how long it will take to syn­the­size the other 14.” Dai hoped that his re­turn to China would help pro­mote in­ter­na­tional co­op­er­a­tion on the Sc2.0 project. “Back then, China al­ready had the sci­en­tific re­search abil­ity to con­trib­ute to the Sc2.0 project. China’s cost of gene syn­the­sis is com­par­a­tively higher, but it boasts younger sci­en­tific re­search pro­fes­sion­als.” Al­though most were not op­ti­mistic about the project in its early days, Dai re­mained con­fi­dent.

Through ef­forts of var­i­ous par­ties, Jef D. Boeke vis­ited China in 2012. He met the sci­en­tific re­search teams from Tian­jin Univer­sity, Ts­inghua Univer­sity and BGI-SHEN­zhen at a ho­tel near Ts­inghua Univer­sity in Beijing. Dur­ing the meet­ing, the project was of­fi­cially launched in China, and each team was as­signed a spe­cific mini-project. Dai chose to tackle the long­est eu­kary­otic chro­mo­some, synxii.

Young Team

Dozens of pictures of Dai’s team mem­bers hang in the cor­ri­dors of his lab­o­ra­tory. The av­er­age age of Dai’s team, which con­sists of stu­dents pur­su­ing mas­ter’s or doc­toral de­grees, is less than 27. Many were born in the 1990s. Be­low the pictures are var­i­ous cer­tifi­cates and awards such as “School of Life Sciences Bas­ket­ball Cup Cham­pion,” “Sports Fes­ti­val Team Award” and “Third Place in Badminton Team Com­pe­ti­tion,” show­cas­ing th­ese sci­en­tific re­searchers’ ath­letic ac­com­plish­ments. Bas­ket­ball is Dai’s fa­vorite hobby.

Since the Sc2.0 project was launched, Dai and his team dove into re­search work. Dai spoke highly of the cur­rent sci­en­tific re­search en­vi­ron­ment in China and its progress over the years, com­mend­ing its ad­van­tages in pool­ing re­sources to solve ma­jor prob­lems. “In re­cent years, China has al­lo­cated mas­sive funds to fun­da­men­tal re­search fields. Much of the equip­ment in U. S. labs has been used for decades whereas many Chi­nese labs have the new­est equip­ment avail­able.”

When Dai re­turned to China in 2011, such a move was not a pop­u­lar choice for Chi­nese stu­dents study­ing in the United States. How­ever, Dai now rec­og­nizes that more and more young sci­en­tists and re­searchers are happy to re­turn to China. In syn­thetic bi­ol­ogy alone, abun­dant young re­search tal­ent is re­turn­ing from over­seas. “Pro­fes­sion­als mat­ter most, but team co­op­er­a­tion also mat­ters,” says Dai. “In the field of syn­thetic bi­ol­ogy, China has abun­dant tal­ent re­serves. Many young stu­dents have good ideas and tons of en­ergy. I be­lieve that young pro­fes­sion­als ben­e­fit­ing from the ‘Thou­sand Tal­ents Plan’ have a promis­ing fu­ture. In the next five to ten years, they will be­come the driv­ing forces in their re­spec­tive fields.”

Fol­lower, Peer to Leader

Dai be­lieves that China’s ge­netic re­search achieve­ments will deepen un­der­stand­ing on life, pro­mote re­lated stud­ies, and most im­por­tantly, be prac­ti­cally ap­plied. Pre­vi­ously, ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied yeast had al­ready been used to pro­duce vac­cines, medicine and cer­tain com­pounds. Th­ese new find­ings mean that when us­ing cus­tom­ized chem­i­cal sub­stances to pro­duce yeast be­comes pos­si­ble, us­age will ex­pand. Pro­mo­tion and ap­pli­ca­tion of syn­thetized yeast is bound to sig­nif­i­cantly in­crease ef­fi­ciency and im­prove qual­ity in the fields of in­dus­trial pro­duc­tion and phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal man­u­fac­tur­ing.

Dai and his team are still con­duct­ing fol­low-up ap­pli­ca­tion re­search. Their lat­est pa­per is ex­pected to be pub­lished soon by a renowned in­ter­na­tional aca­demic jour­nal. “Some bac­te­rial strains suit­able for in­dus­trial pro­duc­tion can be re­trieved from the yeast we de­signed,” Dai re­veals. “Con­sider ethyl al­co­hol pro­duced by maize fer­men­ta­tion as an ex­am­ple. Due to var­i­ous prob­lems, the al­co­hol dis­tilled from maize only reaches 12 per­cent con­cen­tra­tion. In the fu­ture, we may try to use syn­the­sized bac­te­rial strains to in­crease al­co­hol strength, which could cre­ate im­mense eco­nomic ben­e­fits.”

“On the hu­man genome se­quenc­ing project an­nounced in 2000, China only shoul­dered one per­cent of the work,” says Dr. Yang Huan­ming, for­mer head of Beijing In­sti­tute of Ge­nomics (BIG) un­der the Chi­nese Academy of Sciences, who led China’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in the in­ter­na­tional Hu­man Genome Project. “This time, we con­structed 25 per­cent of the yeast chro­mo­somes, a break­through for China in the field of syn­thetic bi­ol­ogy and a tes­ta­ment to the coun­try’s in­ter­na­tional sta­tus. The achieve­ments ex­hib­ited China’s im­pres­sive progress in life sciences. In de­sign­ing and syn­the­siz­ing brewer’s yeast, China has evolved from a fol­lower to a peer on the in­ter­na­tional stage. The coun­try could pos­si­bly be­come a leader in the near fu­ture.”

The joint ef­forts of Chi­nese sci­en­tists have gifted the coun­try in­ter­na­tional recog­ni­tion in syn­thetic bi­ol­ogy. In the fu­ture, Dai hopes to make more break­throughs in fun­da­men­tal sci­en­tific re­search and build a com­pany to in­dus­tri­al­ize his syn­thetic bi­ol­ogy ad­vance­ments.

Dr. Dai Jun­biao in his lab. Dur­ing the in­ter­view, Dai spoke highly of the cur­rent sci­en­tific re­search en­vi­ron­ment in China. by Chen Jian

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