China Cloning Pigs On 'Industrial Scale' To Test Medicines And Treatments

By Ben Wolford on January 14, 2014 2:17 PM EST

Cloned Pigs
China is cloning pigs on an "industrial scale," according to a new BBC report from inside one of the facilities. This is a BBC still of cloned piglets inside the factory. (Photo: Screenshot/BBC)

China is cloning pigs so rapidly that BBC science editor David Shukman, in a new report from Shenzhen, called it "an industrialization of cloning technique." The cloning company Beijing Genomics Institute, based in an old shoe factory, gave a camera crew access to its facilities and products, including genetically modified piglets and a sow on an operating table.

"An oxygen mask is fitted over her snout and she's breathing steadily," Shukman writes. "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." In a moment, they would be finished embedding cloned embryos, prepared by hand in a nearby laboratory. Later, footage captured the mother pig, wobbly on her hooves in a concrete room, as she recovered from the anaesthesia.

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This cloning facility, where executives say 500 pigs are cloned each year, illustrates the aggressive scale of scientific research in China, which for decades had trailed the United States, Russia, and Europe. Now, the Chinese have sent a rover to the moon, explored the bottom of the ocean, and recently announced plans to expand its research outposts in Antarctica. The cloning is the latest in the trend of Chinese scientific investment — this time for the sake of medicine.

Pigs actually share a lot of the same DNA as humans. That means the genetic testing they're doing on these pigs could bolster genetic treatments in people with diseases. Already, the BBC reported, the company, BGI, has created "one batch of particularly small pigs" by removing their growth genes. In others, they've increased the likelihood of the pigs getting Alzheimer's disease. But there's apparently another reason why the scientists have chosen pigs for their work. This is from Shukman's report:

"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.

Sequencing is the process of analyzing the DNA for regions that control different traits. These are the instructions that tell proteins to make a snout instead of a nose. In theory, knowing more about how these genes work could help doctors solve genetic diseases or, as some say, even slow aging. At BGI, the sequencing devices look like mini-refrigerators and occupy several tables in a room. Later, other scientists in lab coats manipulate the animal embryos by hand, which the company says is a faster process than robotic methods. "We can do cloning on a very large scale," one scientist told Shukman. "Thirty to 50 people together doing cloning so that we can make a cloning factory here."

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