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.
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
I check the figures: the team can do two implantations a day. The success
rate is about 70-80%.
Sows are implanted with early stage embryos known as
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
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.
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
In neighbouring buildings, there are rows of gene sequencers - machines the
size of fridges operating 24 hours a day crunching through the codes for
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:
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.
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