BBC News reports that BGI (Beijing Genomics Institute) has 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. The facility produces an astonishing 500 cloned pigs a year: China is exploiting science on an industrial scale.
Two technicians insert 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 team can do two implantations a day. The success rate is about 70-80%.
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.
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 [fish] twice the normal size, to pigs, to yoghurt.
BGI clones and sequences
1) anything that tastes good
2) anything with industrial use – raising yields, for example, or benefits for healthcare.
3) anything that is cute [like Pandas]