A crowdfunding project to map the genetic makeup of the bauhinia flower – Hong Kong’s emblem – has been launched by a group of local scientists.

The genome project aims to raise US$10,000 (HK$77,500) before December 22. If successful, it will be the first Hong Kong genome project funded by the public; sequenced in Hong Kong; assembled and analysed by local students and directly shared with the public.

The flower of the Bauhinia blakeana tree was adopted as the city’s emblem in 1965 and, since 1997, has been part of the flag. It was first discovered by a French missionary, Father Jean-Marie Delavay, in the 1880s, growing on the West of Hong Kong Island. The sterile species is likely a hybrid of two local species, Bauhinia variegata and Bauhinia purpurea, but this has yet to be confirmed genomically.

Scott Edmunds, a Hong Kong-based scientist who jointly started the crowdfunding campaign, said that the idea of the campaign came up after being inspired by a 2012 project in Puerto Rico where the public funded research into the genome of their national parrot.

The Bauhinia Genome sequencing project.

Much lower cost and time

Edmunds said they were taking advantage of the fact that the cost and time required to sequence a plant like the bauhinia is now roughly a millionth of the cost of the human genome project completed in 2003. The human project cost around US$3 billion (HK$23 billion) and took ten years.

The crowdfunding sum will cover the chemicals and components for producing the sequencing data for the project. The group of scientists at BGI Hong Kong – an institution in Tai Po hosting the world’s largest sequencing centre – and the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) will be involved in the project.

Photo: HKFP.

BGI Hong Kong will be gathering the data and CUHK will be performing the assembly and analysis, both for free. However, Edmunds said he hoped other universities and students would help the project by donating their labour and analysis.

“This is a completely made in Hong Kong project, and we want to involve all sectors of the community – students in the other universities and even work with schools. Everything will be Open Data and the materials used to inspire and train other projects around the world.”

Wide benefits

Edmunds said the project could help people better understand where the bauhinia came from and may also be a potential treasure trove for medical research. Previous research has uncovered antibacterial, antidiabetic, analgesic, anti-inflammatory, anti-diarrheal, anti-cancerous and other properties in many such species – characterising the genes could help in developing potential new drugs.

The project could also train local students in the crucial skills required to assemble and analyse the data, as well as engage the public through local pride, Edmunds said.

“Genomics is predicted to produce the biggest big data over the next 10 years, and despite Hong Kong being world-leading in producing technologies and data, there is very little awareness and training to capitalise on this,” Edmunds said, “We’d like to inspire a future generation of genomics data analysts to make Hong Kong a world leader in this field.”

If the project will be successful, the scientists will disclose the academic findings on Wikipedia, without reserving copyright, for the public to see and use.

The Bauhinia Genome sequencing project.

Other ways to help

Other than donating, Edmunds encouraged people to search for different species of bauhinias in Hong Kong as they come into season this month.

Also, he urged people to join the hunt for bauhinia seeds. Despite being sterile, in very rare cases bauhinia has been known to produce seed pods. His group urged people to notify them and the Department of Botany of the University of Hong Kong if people spotted any, so that they can collect samples.

People may also use the #Bauhiniawatch hashtag on social media to report any sightings, he said.

Kris Cheng

Kris Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist with an interest in local politics. His work has been featured in Washington Post, Public Radio International, Hong Kong Economic Times and others. He has a BSSc in Sociology from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Kris is HKFP's Editorial Director.