NEW YORK — The federal government has given national security clearance to the controversial purchase of an American DNA sequencing company by a Chinese firm.
BGI-Shenzhen said over the weekend that its acquisition of Complete Genomics, of Mountain View, Calif., had been cleared by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, which reviews the national security implications of foreign takeovers of US companies.
Some scientists, politicians, and industry executives had said the takeover threatened American competitiveness in DNA sequencing, a technology that is becoming crucial for the development of drugs, diagnostics, and improved crops.
The fact that the $117.6 million deal was controversial at all reflects a change in the genomics community.
A decade ago, the Human Genome Project, in which scientists from many nations helped unravel the genetic blueprint of mankind, was celebrated for its spirit of international cooperation. One of the participants was BGI, then known as the Beijing Genomics Institute.
But with DNA sequencing becoming a big business and a linchpin of the biotechnology industry, international rivalries and nationalism are starting to move front and center in any acquisition.
Much of the alarm about the deal has been raised by Illumina, a San Diego company that is the market-share leader in sequencing machines. It has potentially the most to lose, because BGI might buy fewer Illumina products and even become a competitor. Illumina made its own belated bid for Complete Genomics, offering 15 cents a share more than BGI’s bid of $3.15. But Complete Genomics rebuffed Illumina, saying such a merger would never clear antitrust review.
Illumina also hired a Washington lobbyist, Glover Park Group, to stir up opposition to the deal. Representative Frank R. Wolf, a Virginia Republican, was the only member of Congress known to have publicly expressed concern.
BGI and Complete Genomics point out that Illumina has long sold its sequencing machines to BGI without raising any security concerns. Sequencing machines have not been subject to export controls like aerospace equipment, lasers, sensors, and other gear that can have military uses.
‘‘Illumina has never previously considered its business with BGI as ‘sensitive’ in the least,’’ Ye Yin, the chief operating officer of BGI, said in a November letter to Complete Genomics.
BGI and Complete Genomics said that Illumina was trying to derail the agreement and acquire Complete Genomics itself in order to ‘‘eliminate its closest competitor, Complete.’’
BGI is already one of the most prolific DNA sequencers in the world, but it buys the sequencing machines it uses from others, mainly Illumina.
Illumina, joined by some American scientists, said it worried that if BGI gained access to Complete’s sequencing technology, the Chinese company might use low prices to undercut the American sequencing companies that dominate the industry.
Some also said that with Complete Genomics providing an American base, BGI would have access to more DNA samples from Americans, helping it compile a huge database of genetic information that could be used to develop drugs and diagnostic tests.