Looks like China might be able to solve its potential food and endangered species crises in one go, through industrial-scale cloning. The Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI) clones 500 pigs each year, making it the world’s largest center for pig cloning. It also has plans to gene sequence millions of humans, plants, and other animals, but apparently only if they’re cute. BBC reports:
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 sequencing.
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.
…..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.
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 digitalizing all the wonderful species,” he [Wang Jun, chief of BGI] explains.
(So I guess if you’re endangered and ugly, you’re screwed?)
Now the idea of gene sequencing animals may sound like the premise to a Planet of the Apes-style scenario where experiments go awry, leading to a dystopian future where genetically-superior panda overlords force the remaining humans to watch “Chocolate Asses 3” as inspiration to keep our species alive.
But as Wang stresses, they’re not playing god: “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.”
Still, they may have to contend with a Chinese public that hasn’t been all that receptive to GMOs in the past.