Published online by Cambridge University Press: 18 December 2021
A year before Jiankui He suddenly catapulted to international notoriety, I was on the outskirts of Shenzhen for an international conference at the China National GeneBank. Security guards stood at attention and gave me a smart salute as my taxi passed through the front gate and wound around a steep curved drive. A white building with huge glass windows rose up over a small forested hill in a series of terraces, overlooking a lake. Statues of woolly mammoths flanked the entrance to the building—an adult with huge imposing tusks and small ears, as well as a baby just behind. A flock of pink flamingos was corralled in a pool offto the left . A man in a yellow-and-black uniform waded through a koi pond, tending ornamental plants.
Dr. He was not in attendance. He was on the other side of town, busy at work in his own laboratory. Scores of researchers who shared his basic ambitions, from throughout China and around the world, were milling about, snapping selfies next to scientific rock stars.
Blue and pink lights played on the ceiling as we were ushered into an auditorium for the opening ceremony. Chairman Henry Yang assumed the stage as a dramatic orchestral overture played. He wore a dark business suit and a red tie, and his closely cropped black hair was white around the edges. His conservative dress contrasted with his colorful personality. Yang announced a bold vision: “Within ten years we aim to sequence the DNA of every important plant species, within twenty years we want to sequence every human on the planet, within thirty years we aim to sequence every form of life.”
Yang paraded around the stage, giddy with enthusiasm, saying that he had a surprise in store for the audience. “My girls and boys always have new ideas,” he said. In the next breath he shouted: “George, come on!” A legendary molecular biologist from Harvard, George Church—a towering Cro-Magnon of a man—was summoned to the stage. Church has long aspired to bring woolly mammoths back from the dead. The project was on a back burner in the United States, with technical progress on other projects bringing Church incremental advances. Not so here. In flattering the Harvard biologist, Yang conveyed a strong message: China has the resources and the technical skills to make Church's vision a reality.