DNA Dream Team
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.
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