When Yuan Yingjin turned 54 on March 10, he had two unusual presents: some yeast chromosomes and acclaim in China's national news.
That day, research into assembling four synthetic yeast chromosomes, completed by his Tianjin University research team and scientists at Tsinghua University and BGI-Shenzhen, was published in the journal, Science.
The achievement made China the second country after the United States capable of designing and building eukaryotic genomes.
Yuan's team contributed most in the findings, constructing two synthetic active chromosomes by exactly matching the synthetic genome with the designed sequence for the first time.
"Synthetic yeast chromosomes will facilitate studies on chromosome abnormity and repair of the genome, providing models for research and treatment of medical challenges such as epilepsy, cancer, mental disability and aging," Yuan says.
A chemical engineering major, Yuan recalls the completion of the world's first human genome sequence map in 2000 and thinking that life sciences were set to take off.
The same year, the Internet also began to rise in China. Major Chinese portal sites, such as Sohu and Sina, landed in U.S. capital market. Today, China's online landscape is huge with its rising Internet companies, innovation and the world's largest web population.
Yuan thought biology would also start to develop rapidly as people with different educational backgrounds connected to study and expand its applications.
After reading many foreign academic papers and visiting labs at the world's leading universities, Yuan focused on synthetic biology, which, he thought, would provide solutions to energy shortages, pollution and diseases.
However, few people shared his vision a decade ago. "Many doubted that synthetic genomes had a future," Yuan recalls. "They misunderstood it as copying, but it is actually about redesign." He spent years persuading other scientists and officials to invest in the field.
U.S. scientists also faced skepticism at that time. Jef Boeke, professor of biochemistry at New York University, launched a synthetic yeast genome project in 2007, aiming to modify the yeast genome with a series of densely spaced designer changes.
Brewer's yeast has long served as an important research model because its cells share many features with human cells, and are simpler and easier to study.
Until 2014, Boeke's team had assembled the first yeast chromosome. But it cost more than 60 researchers working on seven years.
He invited other U.S. labs to join the project, but they showed little interest. "I did try, but people thought it was impossible, crazy, a waste of money," Boeke told Xinhua in an e-mail interview.
In 2010, American researchers implanted a synthetic genome in a prokaryotic bacterium, marking the first step in the chemical synthesis of live organisms.
In the same year, Boeke began seeking help from abroad, to contribute expertise and to shoulder the substantial costs.
In 2010, China overtook Japan as the world's second largest economy. In the 12th Five-Year Plan for National Economic and Social Development (2011-2015), synthetic biology was given top priority on the cutting-edge scientific research list. It was followed by dark matter.