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
    -13

    Comment number 22.

    The chinese should spend more time educating their population how to respect the planet and its resources instead of industrialising animal cruelty for so called delicacies and sham traditional medicine

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 21.

    I really do not see the advantage in this cloning. Surely each piglet is more expensive due o the various stages of medical intervention, whereas normal artificial insemination is relatively cheaper, or using a boar is even less expensive. I accept that mortality rates of piglets maybe slightly higher with established methods, but I suspect there are similar rates with cloning.

  • rate this
    -3

    Comment number 20.

    Hypocritical, Chinese use GMO (genetically modified organism) status as an excuse to restrict US imports, such as corn.

  • rate this
    +32

    Comment number 19.

    18.Bob Ezergailis I firmly believe that the PRC, communist China, would clone and genetically modify anything that it believes it has a use for, and that would include cloning and genetically modifying humans for use in tis military.
    ---
    I think you'll find we in the west are also doing research on cloning humans behind closed doors, out of the public gaze.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 18.

    I firmly believe that the PRC, communist China, would clone and genetically modify anything that it believes it has a use for, and that would include cloning and genetically modifying humans for use in tis military.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 17.

    The Chinese are moving fast forward. The western media should try hard to play the sour grape attitude at faster speed too. Sissy and paranoid westerners.

  • rate this
    +42

    Comment number 16.

    OK, so it is no secret that pig meat has long been popular in China.

    So the Chinese discover a breed of pig which defines optimal production.

    And so who could blame China for investigating that?

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 15.

    @11
    I fully agree with commercialising genetic tech, although I'm rather sceptical about its application in cosmetics. Appreciation of superficial features lies deeper than merely judging whether a person is pretty; it also has evolutionary implications, such as correlation between certain features and other unrelated genetic traits. Changing only the features could be highly risky.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 14.

    @4
    Yes. Really. While the US can afford to expend a little food, since they have more than 1/5 of the world's arable farmland and only 4% of the population, the rest of the world is not so lucky. Burning fuel ethanol from sweetcorn is tantamount to burning Ethiopian children, but we all hope that it will be worth it in the long run.

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 13.

    I wonder how he feels about acquiring such power to take control of nature…..
    Dolly ( the sheep) was a result of such powers to take control of nature, the germs have always spread from the west to east, unlike porcelain and silk the other way around.

  • rate this
    -3

    Comment number 12.

    This is progress. My concern is not so much what is being done but who it is being done by.

    The Chinese hardly have a long history of morality and ethics.

    Worrying.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 11.

    Why words such as "shock" and "bombshell." There is nothing scary about this. This is progress! As a programmer, I wonder if I can help somehow?

    Imagine the possibilities with genetics. +20% intelligence per generation. Modification of aesthetics (skin, eye, hair color, facial structure, etc).

    Leave ethics out of science, life is intrinsically worthless anyways, specialize for industrial apps

  • rate this
    +11

    Comment number 10.

    A large portion of this work is focused on understanding biology - why things happen the way they do, what genes control for what characteristics. I wish there was more of this kind of research here. It's the manipulation of species which is worrisome; this should be subject to more than zero oversight, obviously, but could still produce results that profoundly improve our quality of life.

  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 9.

    Not sure why we are surprised at this. Look at all of the western technology they are using .... then add in to the equation a blend of no ethics, no controls and no PC and what do you get ?

    Similar to the Comac 919 plane program - Engines, flight controls, etc all provided by Europe and US, but then assembled in China.

    Sooner we wake up and stop assisting China the better !

  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 8.

    There was this story about gene doping on BBC a few days ago: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01pg1fp

    If China starts to win all Olympics and world cup titles in the next decade, and starts rolling out army divisions of identical super soldiers, then we would know, it was a bigger project. But then it would be too late.

    It is time to start learning Mandarin. It is becoming inevitable not to

    .

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 7.

    Luddites and nationalism to drown out comments in 3...2...1...

  • rate this
    +5

    Comment number 6.

    Pigs are quite similar to humans. Clone pig, clone human. Don't live in delusions. China will do it, may already have.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 5.

    Zero oversight, yes - and with humans so numerous that one wonders how much value we have, compared to the creatures being so casually manufactured - less perhaps, unless considered 'tasty' (hopefully not) or cute (clone the cute people, perhaps - and cull the rest)... Hope it's a while before we start experimenting upon one another - but this is creepy in the extreme...

  • rate this
    -3

    Comment number 4.

    "there are lots of people dying from hunger and protein supply "... Really? So- this is why we now burn - literally millions of tons of maize to make fuel ethanol - then feed the corn protein to pigs and chickens as "waste"? Sad to see the delusions of industrial ag spread so thoroughly to China- they're smarter than that - if they can quit watching western television for a few minutes.

  • rate this
    +8

    Comment number 3.

    I am going to begin practicing my Mandarin now, so as to better serve our future masters when the day comes.

 

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