Assembly line format cloning. That sounds like something right out of a sci fi book!
In Chinese mythology, the Monkey King is a beast with magical fur. All he has to do is pull out a hair, blow on it and it is instantly transformed into a clone of himself.
Xu Xiaochun, chief executive of BoyaLife, says the fable is not far from reality, as far as his Chinese biotechnology company is concerned. This week he announced an investment of $31m in a joint venture with South Korea’s Sooam Biotech that aims to clone 1m cows a year from their hair cells
The Monkey King “sounds like a fairy tale but we are really doing the same thing”, he says. “We pull out 200 hairs, blow on them — and boom!”
Sometime next year, researchers in BoyaLife’s laboratory on the outskirts of the coastal city of Tianjin will take skin cells from a few carefully chosen cattle (Kobe beef is Mr Xu’s favourite). The scientists will extract the nucleus from each cell and place it into an unfertilised egg from another cow. The cloned embryos will then be implanted in surrogate dairy cows housed on cattle ranches throughout China.
His ambition is staggering. Starting with 100,000 cloned cattle embryos a year in “phase one”, Mr Xu envisages 1m annually at some point in the future. That would make BoyaLife by far the largest clone factory in the world.
Mr Xu says the latest techniques enable cloning to be carried out in an “assembly line format” at a rate of less than 1 minute per cell. Based on a four- hour shift and 250 working days a year, a proficient cloner would “manufacture” 60,000 cloned cow embryos a year, he says, adding that a team of 50 will be sufficient for the planned scale of the project. Mr Xu plans to have a staff of 300 and eventual total investment is estimated at $500m.
If the venture comes anywhere near achieving its goal, it will be another example of the recent surge of path-breaking, taboo-busting biotechnology research, with China introducing mass production and commercialisation of projects that are still in the experimental and clinical stages elsewhere.
China’s flag-bearer in biotech is BGI, formerly known as Beijing Genomics Institute and now based in Shenzhen. BGI has grown into the world’s biggest genomics organisation, with a huge capacity to read, analyse and alter DNA from plants, microbes, people and animals. It employs more than 2,000 PhD-level scientists and 200 top-of-the-range gene-sequencing machines.
In September BGI captured the public imagination with an announcement that “micropigs”, originally developed for biomedical research through gene editing and cloning, would be sold as pets.
Chinese scientists are enthusiastic adopters of a “gene editing” technology called Crispr, invented in the US about three years ago, which greatly accelerates the insertion and deletion of DNA in any type of living cell.
We are [cloning] on a scale of millions, and suddenly people say, ‘Gee, do they have a lower standard of ethics?’ We do not– Xu Xiaochun, chief executive BoyaLife
In September researchers from several Chinese universities published a study of Shanbei cashmere goats, whose genes were edited to produce larger muscles and longer hair, making them potentially more valuable as sources of meat and textile fibres.
“The results showed that simultaneous editing of several [DNA] sites was achieved in large animals, demonstrating that the Crispr system has the potential to become a robust and efficient gene engineering tool in farm animals and therefore will be critically important and applicable for breeding,” they wrote in Scientific Reports, a leading western journal.
But the most controversial application of gene editing is in human cells. In April scientists from Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou used Crispr to modify the genomes of 85 non-viable human embryos, despite a number of pre-emptive articles in western medical journals urging them not to do it. Although the experiment failed, it provoked an outcry from scientific peers and ominous headlines about the risks to passing on genetic changes to future human generations.
While China’s biotech sector overall is small in financial terms — a study by McKinsey last month found that Chinese biotech companies account for less than 3 per cent of global revenues in the sector worldwide — they aspire to be world leaders in some of the most advanced and controversial biotech. Critics say this is partly due to looser regulations and a more relaxed treatment in China of some of the ethical issues involved.
In contrast, cloning of farm animals is effectively outlawed in Europe, which is where the technology started with the birth in 1996 of Dolly the sheep at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh. Roslin has moved away from cloning to other areas of animal research, and today its scientists are reluctant to talk about the issue.
The European Parliament voted by a large majority in September to ban agricultural cloning and the sale of cloned livestock on the grounds that cloned offspring suffer more health problems than conventional animals.
In the US, on the other hand, cattle have been cloned successfully for several years. In 2008 the US Food and Drug Administration ruled that the practice was safe; the leading livestock cloning company ViaGen, a subsidiary of Intrexon, says it “has successfully delivered thousands of healthy cloned animals to clients”.
Mr Xu says people may be applying double standards when they judge China. “We are [cloning] on a scale of millions, and suddenly people say, ‘Gee, do they have a lower standard of ethics?’ We do not. We just do things on a massive scale,” he says. “If we made a factory that produces 10 cows a year rather than a million, no one would even blink.”
However, according to Yusheng Wei, researcher at Peking University’s School of Life Sciences, unclear and incomplete rules make it easier to push ethical boundaries in China. “It’s not so much that we have a different ethical system but that China is relatively new to this field, and there are not enough laws and restrictions in place,” he says. “China’s rapid progress in gene technology does have something to do with loose regulations. It’s hard for regulations to keep up with the development.”
Mr Wei says there is disagreement even within the Chinese scientific establishment over some aspects of gene modification. “There are no ethical debates over cloning,” he adds. “It’s just that everything is being drowned out by the debate over gene modification.”
Cloned cows create a new beef over climate change
UN estimates global meat industry belches out 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions
If there is an ethical gap between Chinese and western research, as some believe, it is narrowing as “Chinese scientists are being brought into the global scientific community”, says Peter Mills, assistant director of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics in London.
An encouraging sign of this process is the key role played by the Chinese Academy of Sciences in organising a meeting on gene editing in Washington next week, along with the US National Academy of Sciences and UK’s Royal Society.
“We would like to work together with international communities for the proper regulation and application of such technology,” says Bai Chunli, president of the Chinese Academy.
Mr Xu points out that the FDA last week approved transgenic salmon, the first genetically engineered animal to be permitted for sale as food. Chinese regulators have not approved any GM animal to be used as food, nor have they approved GM crops to be planted in China for human consumption, with some minor exceptions. They do allow the import of a number of GM strains, notably soya beans used in cooking oil and animal feed.
While scientists have generally welcomed the FDA approval of GM salmon, there may be consumer resistance to the fish in the US, where environmental groups are pushing retailers to boycott the product. This week Friends of the Earth called on supporters to “celebrate” as Costco “joined more than 60 grocery store chains nationwide, including Kroger, Safeway, Trader Joe’s, Target and Whole Foods, that listened to the science and consumers and made commitments to not sell this unnecessary, risky and unlabelled ‘frankenfish’.”
The European Parliament voted by a large majority in September to ban agricultural cloning and the sale of cloned livestock
When it comes to scientifically enhanced food, Mr Xu says Chinese consumers are more conservative than their American counterparts. So cloned beef may be a tough sell. “It’s always hard to get people to try new things. It’s hard to get them to trust science.”
Mr Xu uses an analogy to illustrate why cloned meat is intrinsically safe. “If you have a glass of water and you pour half into another glass, that would be cloning. If you add a drop of ink into a glass of water, that would be genetically modifying. The determining factor is whether you change the species.”
That is true in theory, but in practice there are obstacles to creating a perfect replica, says Kehkooi Kee of Tsinghua University. “There are risks because it won’t be an exact copy,” he says.
But Mr Xu says cloning is the best way to produce enough elite calves to satisfy growing demand for the meat that China is consuming in greater quantities as incomes rise. “Cloned beef is the tastiest beef I’ve had,” he says.