China cloning on an 'industrial scale'

 

The cloning methods may not be novel - but the application of mass production is

You hear the squeals of the pigs long before reaching a set of long buildings set in rolling hills in southern China.

Feeding time produces a frenzy as the animals strain against the railings around their pens. But this is no ordinary farm.

Run by a fast-growing company called BGI, this facility has become the world's largest centre for the cloning of pigs.

The technology involved is not particularly novel - but what is new is the application of mass production.

The first shed contains 90 animals in two long rows. They look perfectly normal, as one would expect, but each of them is carrying cloned embryos. Many are clones themselves.

This place produces an astonishing 500 cloned pigs a year: China is exploiting science on an industrial scale.

Start Quote

If it tastes good you should sequence it... you should know what's in the genes of that species”

End Quote Wang Jun Chief executive, BGI

To my surprise, we're taken to see how the work is done. A room next to the pens serves as a surgery and a sow is under anaesthetic, lying on her back on an operating table. An oxygen mask is fitted over her snout and she's breathing steadily. Blue plastic bags cover her trotters.

Two technicians have inserted a fibre-optic probe to locate the sow's uterus. A third retrieves a small test-tube from a fridge: these are the blastocysts, early stage embryos prepared in a lab. In a moment, they will be implanted.

The room is not air-conditioned; nor is it particularly clean. Flies buzz around the pig's head.

My first thought is that the operation is being conducted with an air of total routine. Even the presence of a foreign television crew seems to make little difference. The animal is comfortable but there's no sensitivity about how we might react, let alone what animal rights campaigners might make of it all.

I check the figures: the team can do two implantations a day. The success rate is about 70-80%.

Embryo implantation Sows are implanted with early stage embryos known as blastocysts

Dusk is falling as we're shown into another shed where new-born piglets are lying close to their mothers to suckle. Heat lamps keep the room warm. Some of the animals are clones of clones. Most have been genetically modified.

The point of the work is to use pigs to test out new medicines. Because they are so similar genetically to humans, pigs can serve as useful "models". So modifying their genes to give them traits can aid that process.

One batch of particularly small pigs has had a growth gene removed - they stopped growing at the age of one. Others have had their DNA tinkered with to try to make them more susceptible to Alzheimer's.

Back at the company headquarters, a line of technicians is hunched over microscopes. This is a BGI innovation: replacing expensive machines with people. It's called "handmade cloning" and is designed to make everything quicker and easier.

The scientist in charge, Dr Yutao Du, explains the technique in a way that leaves me reeling.

"We can do cloning on a very large scale," she tells me, "30-50 people together doing cloning so that we can make a cloning factory here."

A cloning factory - an incredible notion borrowed straight from science fiction. But here in Shenzhen, in what was an old shoe factory, this rising power is creating a new industry.

Infographic

The scale of ambition is staggering. BGI is not only the world's largest centre for cloning pigs - it's also the world's largest centre for gene sequencing.

In neighbouring buildings, there are rows of gene sequencers - machines the size of fridges operating 24 hours a day crunching through the codes for life.

To illustrate the scale of this operation, Europe's largest gene sequencing centre is the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute near Cambridge. It has 30 machines. BGI has 156 and has even bought an American company that makes them.

BGI's chief executive, Wang Jun, tells me how they need the technology to develop ever faster and cheaper ways of reading genes.

Again, a comparison for scale: a recently-launched UK project seeks to sequence 10,000 human genomes. BGI has ambitions to sequence the genomes of a million people, a million animals and a million plants.

Wang Jun is keen to stress that all this work must be relevant to ordinary people through better healthcare or tastier food. The BGI canteen is used as a testbed for some of the products from the labs: everything from grouper twice the normal size, to pigs, to yoghurt.

I ask Wang Jun how he chooses what to sequence. After the shock of hearing the phrase "cloning factory", out comes another bombshell:

Chinese scientists at cloning centre BGI has ambitions to sequence the genomes of a million people, a million animals and a million plants

"If it tastes good you should sequence it," he tells me. "You should know what's in the genes of that species."

Species that taste good is one criterion. Another he cites is that of industrial use - raising yields, for example, or benefits for healthcare.

"A third category is if it looks cute - anything that looks cute: panda, polar bear, penguin, you should really sequence it - it's like digitalising all the wonderful species," he explains.

I wonder how he feels about acquiring such power to take control of nature but he immediately contradicts me.

"No, we're following Nature - there are lots of people dying from hunger and protein supply so we have to think about ways of dealing with that, for example exploring the potential of rice as a species," the BGI chief counters.

China is on a trajectory that will see it emerging as a giant of science: it has a robotic rover on the Moon, it holds the honour of having the world's fastest supercomputer and BGI offers a glimpse of what industrial scale could bring to the future of biology.

 
David Shukman Article written by David Shukman David Shukman Science editor

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  • rate this
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    Comment number 302.

    In the second photo, who was that --a blond-haired white creature lying in the operation bed? so cute

  • rate this
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    Comment number 301.

    Interesting but only covered part of what they does.

    Wasn't BGI the organisation that sequenced the organism responsible for sequencing the genome of the E.Coli epidemic and releasing it to enable rapid action to help halt it. A western organisation would have sat on the results to only release the data after producing papers to gain some kudos.

    And yes I do have a relation working in BGI

  • rate this
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    Comment number 300.

    Why are those pigs all WHITE? interesting

  • rate this
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    Comment number 299.

    They should clone Tigers, Rhinos and Elephants. Mass produce them so that the price for illegally poached animals drops, and therefore the temptation to hunt and destroy the wild populations goes away! Invest some of the profits in conservation of the wild populations of those animals.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 298.

    This is an amazing article. I admire the fact the Chinese are not bound by the same political correctness that we in the west are.

    Humanity has amazing technology at its fingertips, yet we are so comfortable in arguing over opinions that we don't get things done.

    These companies are not horror shows, I see them in the same light as pioneers. More articles like this one please.

 

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