Cloned piglets at a pig farm in China in 2010 (Photo: CHINA-FOOD/SCIENCE REUTERS/Bobby Yip)
China is cloning pigs at an unprecedented rate, producing 500 every year at a facility in Shenzhen run by the Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI), the BBC reports.
The reason for all this cloning activity, BGI's chief executive Wang Jun told the BBC, is social betterment. Pigs are genetically similar to humans, making them particularly useful for testing new medications. The cloning process allows BGI to produce pigs with particular traits — such as being susceptible to Alzheimer's — which they hope will help them devise new ways to treat diseases.
Animal rights groups have raised concerns about the ethics of both cloning and the use of pigs for drug testing. BBC's David Shukman notes that at the Chinese factory, "there's no sensitivity about how we might react, let alone what animal rights campaigners might make of it all."
The scale of the enterprise makes the BGI facility by far the world's biggest cloning centre — though that's not the only futuristic science the institute is involved in. It's also resposible for the world's largest gene-sequencing centre, home to 156 gene sequencers, over five times the number at the world's next biggest centre in England. According to the BBC, the institute hopes to map out genome sequences for one million animals, one million people and one million plants.
Various criteria factor into decisions about what species to sequence. "If it tastes good you should sequence it," Wang Jun told the BBC. "You should know what's in the genes of that species." Knowing the genome sequences of certain plants might also lead to ways of raising yields, helping to combat hunger. (The use of genetically modified plants as a way to feed a growing population is controversial, of course — last week we posted a video from University of Guelph professor Evan Fraser exploring the subject.)
Cuteness, Wang Jun added, is also a consideration. "Anything that looks cute: panda, polar bear, penguin, you should really sequence it — it's like digitalising all the wonderful species."
Via BBC News