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
    +2

    Comment number 42.

    @ 39. wspirit

    Couldn't agree more. I love pork. More bacon can definitely not be a bad thing. I hope they do this with cows one day. I wish steak was cheaper. :-(

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 41.

    One day this could cure your cancer, or could you grow horns ?

  • rate this
    -8

    Comment number 40.

    It's nothing to do with being scared its morally wrong!! Why is an Animals life deemed worthless in comparison to any other living thing! Comments like "PETA nutjobs" come from people with no compassion for another living thing! Just sad!

  • rate this
    +17

    Comment number 39.

    Thanks for the balanced and unbiased reporting BBC.

    Thanks also to China for doing what we couldn't dare do in the West.. for fear of being attacked / murdered by animal rights activists and other Luddites! Frankly, cloned nice tasting pork is a great idea..

  • rate this
    +13

    Comment number 38.

    BBC I'm disappointed - this article includes so much personal and emotive language from the writer/reporter. We all know one of China's biggest problem is its over-population; so since the rich are killing all the animals, why not look for an alternative? And it's not like this isn't scientific research; if other countries can experiment on rats and sheep, why not pigs? Humans will be next.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 37.

    32ht"Sadly all the PETA nutjobs would burn down the research facilities before we got that far."
    One would hope that, under the rule of law, the hypocrites at PETA would be prevented from doing so.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 36.

    Please tell me someone has read Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood??
    Pigoon Balloon!
    Li Zhang, with regards to your comments of life is intrisically worthless?? can we really use this as justification for doing this sort of thing? Surely the opposite should be happening if life is worthless, who cares about cures if thats the case?!

  • rate this
    +49

    Comment number 35.

    When we do Science, it's noble. When another culture dies Science, the words used are 'left me reeling' and 'bombshell'. The parochial inward-looking nature of BBC reporting is so transparent. I'm tempted to use the word 'racist'.

    Especially when one is travelling (I'm abroad on business as I type), and has access to the truly global, truly excellent CNN.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 34.

    We are certainly heading towards 'Brave New World' for better or worse. Pity the human clones born with some major, minor or slight defect, enter 'The Chrysalids' or worse. Diversity is neccesary for the development of all life forms. Death of all humans not only morally, but also physically is programmed by such 'scientific advancements'

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 33.

    Even as a Chinese, I have to say that after reading this article I started hating my counterparts, however I told myself, hold on a second, let me find another source for information, and here it is for those who only get infomation from here, in my eyes more authoritative:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beijing_Genomics_Institute

    There you can see lots of practical usage of doing this research.

  • rate this
    +13

    Comment number 32.

    If scientists here did this kind of work then we'd probably have cured cancer by now.

    Sadly all the PETA nutjobs would burn down the research facilities before we got that far.

  • rate this
    +35

    Comment number 31.

    the only problem here is that someone sees their place in the world order threatened. its just petty. china will do what china wants and maybe we all will benefit but also perhaps not. thats the only real story here

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 30.

    @20 LawSci - The difference between China and the USA is that GMO are not sanctioned by law for mass use or production. The aforementioned "cloning factory" is nothing more than a research facility, albeit a very disturbing one. Their goal is clearly stated - pure scientific dabbling with genes.

    Whether they use them commercially or not is to be seen.

  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 29.

    What works for pigs works for humans.
    If some immoral state so wished, they could clone a 'super-race' of perfect humans, just like the Nazi party desired.
    Would these cloned humans be superior to us, or would we regard them as artefacts to be treated like slaves?
    One things is sure, they will be made.

  • rate this
    -3

    Comment number 28.

    @22 I exactly agree with u,furthermore,I think we should talk about how about humanbeings stop kill animals like cattles,sheep,fish,chicken to maintain the guilty human bodies.oh,almost forget,plants are also living lifes.

  • Comment number 27.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 26.

    11 Li Zhang "Leave ethics out of science, life is intrinsically worthless anyways, specialize for industrial apps."

    I sincerely hope that you are not in a position of any power or influence.

  • rate this
    -20

    Comment number 25.

    Communist China is a Communist state that places science and technology under the absolute strict control of Chinese Communist ideology. The CCP is ruthless and immoral! The company BGI is acting like Dr Moreau and Dr Frankenstein. The West and the Free World should keep close tabs on scientific research in China. 99% of Han Chinese are not scientific in their cultural mindset.

  • Comment number 24.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 23.

    Sequencing DNA has become very easy. The hard part comes in finding out what the sequences mean and how they are responsible for the different forms of life. That can not be done with a machine but only by laborious investigations by humans.

 

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