Wednesday, January 15, 2014


Remember the famous Dolly of cloning fame? The cloning technology which was tried out to create replicates of healthy animals came with lot of uncertainties including low success rate, high mortality of the clones and deformed progeny. Though technically it is a clean technology not much attention was given in the West for making it a commercially viable one during the last two decades. Now comes the news that Chinese are using this technology to create healthy clones with 70-80% success rate. Here is what has been gleaned by a visitor from one of the cloning facilities in that country. 

"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." Start QuoteIf it tastes good you should sequence it... you should know what's in the genes of that species" 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 all. I check the figures: the team can do two implantations a day. The success rate is about 70-80%".

Though there is nothing so surprising regarding this news report, what is not clear is the intention of the venture in producing just 500 clones an year which cannot be considered a viable production scale by international standards. Is it possible that these clones are used to raise new generation pigs with high quality in other commercial centers? The cost of production of clones is also not clear. As Chinese are obsessively secretive, one will never know what logistical problems are being faced by these ventures. One of the observations made by the visitor pertains to the relatively unhygienic conditions prevailing in this facility. Elsewhere in the world it is unthinkable that such high tech work is carried out in such a callous way with no air conditioned facility and flies swarming the place! 


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