China’s BGI put the results online three days later, enabling researchers to trace the strain’s origins while they tried to work out what caused the bug to kill at least 49 people and sicken thousands more in 13 countries. Such missions are payoff from a four-year drive to build the world’s biggest sequencer of genomes -- data used to fight disease, improve crops and save rare species.
Mapping genes of pathogens, rice and giant pandas helped BGI raise its profile and win clients such as Merck & Co. (MRK) and Novartis AG. Still, the Shenzhen-based organization needs more skills to move it up the value chain. That mirrors challenges facing the country as a whole, where growth in spending on science is outstripping that in the U.S. and Europe as China seeks to escape from reliance on low-cost manufacturing.
“‘Made in China’ is a label found everywhere,” said Richard N. Zare, Stanford professor of chemistry, who chaired an international committee to evaluate the country’s National Natural Science Foundation in the past year. “Clearly, the Chinese government also wants to see ‘discovered in China’ and ‘invented in China’ become more prominent.”
China this year launched its first space laboratory and unveiled a stealth fighter jet, raising concerns in the U.S. and among Asian neighbors. Gains in civilian technologies offer a less-threatening way for the country that invented gunpowder and surpassed ancient Greece in calculating pi to recapture a leading role as a technological power.
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