Published on January 15th, 20140
For what purpose does China clone pigs on an ‘industrial scale’?
Cloning technology is not very new, but what is new is the tendency of its application in mass production, and China is, in this aspect, one of the world leaders. In southern China, the company BGI has, for instance, the largest center for cloning pigs, where this technology is applied on an industrial scale, making this country one of the major players in science and new technologies.
The center produces no less than 500 cloned pigs annually - a huge number for an activity of this kind.
The process involves implanting in the uterus of a sow - under general anesthesia - some embryos that are in a very early stage of development (blastocyst) obtained in the laboratory. Two such operations performed per day, with a success rate of 70-80 %.
Some of the animals here are clones of clones, many of which are genetically modified.
Such pigs are prepared for scientific and medical purposes, e.g. for testing of new drugs. Because between humans and pigs are more genetic similarities, pigs can be used as a biological model in scientific studies and genetic changes that confer specific traits that may help to understand the physiological processes of the human body.
For example, some of the pigs are very small, they have removed a gene which regulates the growth process, so that their growth is stopped at the age of one year.
Others are more susceptible to Alzheimer’s disease, also as a result of genetic modification.
Basically, this is a ‘clone factory’, as explained by Dr. Yutao Sun, lead investigator of the laboratory: 30-50 laboratory technicians working in a huge warehouse, making what is called “manual cloning” to a very high scale.
The BGI company not only owns the largest center for cloning pigs worldwide, but the largest gene sequencing center. The operation is performed by sequencing machines the size of refrigerators that operate day and night, deciphering the genomes of different creatures.
And this operation is achieved quantitatively at an amazing level. The largest gene sequencing center in Europe, from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute near Cambridge, UK, has 30 such devices. BGI has 156 and just recently bought a U.S. company that also manufactures these machines. BGI announced, moreover, that has the ambition to sequence the genomes of 1 million people, 1 million animals and 1 million plants.
As stated by the Executive Director of BGI , Wang Jun, this work is of great interest to all people, because it could mean access to tastier food and better health quality.
How the BGI chooses which genome should be sequenced? Putting this question to Wang Jun, by the British journalist David Shukman, the BBC received a stunning response: “If it tastes good you should sequence it“, said the Director of BGI. “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.
And, for a third category of species of interest for sequencing, Chinese specialists take into account and agreeable appearance: “anything that looks cute: panda, polar bear, penguin, you should really sequence it - it’s like digitalising all the wonderful species”, says Wang Jun.
China is currently in a rapid rise in the development of science and technology: they sent a robotic rover on the moon have the most powerful supercomputer in the world and BGI offers here an example of what would mean for the future of biology, the development of industrial scale processes until recently only made very limited at the laboratory.