Internet & Tech

Food for thought

China turns to cloned cattle to keep up with food demand

Boyalife Xu

Juiced up: Boyalife’s boss Xu

In Noah’s Ark the animals were reputed to have gone in two-by-two. Now China’s first commercial cloning company, Boyalife, is planning to bring them out one-by-one, potentially saving endangered animals and even resuscitating long extinct ones. Unsurprisingly, global news organisations have not been very enthused by news that Boyalife is in the final stages of building a factory, which could mass-produce up to one million genetically identical cows per year.

Cloning has never ended well in the realms of popular culture. In both the films Never Let Me Go and The Island, clones rebel when they realise they have been created to provide body parts for their ‘owners’. Likewise, in the Jurassic Park series, genetically engineered dinosaurs run amok over the span of four films (very lucratively for their producer Steven Spielberg).

The first two films address fears of what might happen if the noble idea of fixing genetic mutations is pushed beyond the ethical boundaries of ridding the world of inherited diseases. The latter film distills concerns about the consequences of accelerating evolution and breeding. By comparison, scientists generally agree that it took millions of years for wolves to become domestic dogs and more recently about 600 years for cows to quadruple in size.

These deeply embedded anxieties are now being superimposed on two very specific China-related fears. Firstly, how much trust can be placed in a country where a large number of companies have generated public health scares by taking shortcuts where safety and ethics are concerned?

Secondly, the sheer scale of anything that takes place in China means there will be very large numbers of cloned animals. Any ‘unintended consequences’ of large-scale commercial cloning could also very quickly end up in the food chain. (Though China isn’t the only party to tinker with our food chain. American firms such as Monsanto have been mass-producing genetically modified food and seeds for years, see WiC208.)

Xu Xiaochun, the CEO of Boyalife, has spent the past week telling reporters such critiques are just rubbish. At one press conference he advised journalists that cloning is just like tipping half a glass of orange juice into a new empty glass and creating two glasses of orange juice.

But Boyalife’s plans are rather more ambitious. It has invested Rmb200 million ($31 million) in a joint venture with South Korea’s Sooam Group, as well as Peking University’s Institute of Molecular Medicine and the Tianjin International Joint Academy of Biomedicine. Phase one involves the production of roughly 100,000 cloned cows in 2016, before ramping up to one million cattle in the coming years.

The Tianjin-based factory also plans to produce cloned and genetically modified primates, pet dogs and sniffer dogs (which will be better at rescuing people trapped under rubble and uncovering drugs).

The venture has already cloned a Tibetan Mastiff, one of the most expensive dogs in the world (last year a pure pedigree sold for a record $2.4 million).

The Sino-Korean factory will be able to commercialise cloning and genetic modification because of advances in a genetic editing technique developed by US scientists in 2013. It is called Crispr (clustered regulatory interspaced short palindromic repeats) and is based on way bacteria protects itself from viruses. An enzyme called Cas9 uses a guide RNA molecule to hone in on the part of DNA that needs to be altered or replaced.

Chinese firms have been at the forefront of using Crispr. Recent instances include genetically modified Shanbei cashmere goats, which have longer hair and larger muscles, plus beagles with double the normal muscle mass, after scientists deleted the relevant gene.

Pigs also feature prominently. Shenzhen-based BGI, the world’s largest geonomics organisation, recently began selling miniature cloned pet pigs (one sixth their normal size), at a cost of $1,600 each. A BBC report on the company’s surgical procedures echoed many of the wider concerns which in September led the EU to ban livestock cloning on animal welfare grounds.

The Korean JV partner of Boyalife, Sooam meanwhile specialises in dogs after successfully cloning the world’s first canine, called Snuppy, in 2005. It has since produced 600 cloned puppies for grieving dog lovers although as US news organisation NPR reports, the success rate may be as low as 30%.

Hyun Insoo from Case Western Reserve University says even successful clones can end up dying young because the process does not involve completely resetting the DNA to its embryonic state.

Hyun also flags concerns about Sooam’s head, Hwang Woo-suk, who was charged with faking research that credited him as the first person to clone human embryos and produce live stem cells back in 2005. “I just don’t think someone like him can be trusted to follow the rules appropriately,” Hyun concludes.

Wei Yusheng from Peking University School of Life Science argues that China’s scientific community does not have a different ethical system from others. He tells the Financial Times the nation is just new to a field where different countries apply a myriad of conflicting rules. Though the EU has banned the commercial cloning of farm animals, the US has allowed their sale since 2008.

In fact, some of the most advanced cloning activity has been happening in Argentina. Crestview was founded there in 2009 and it has focused on cloning polo ponies. Indeed, one of the partners in the firm is top rider Adolfo Cambioso who will ride at least four cloned ponies at the Palermo Open in Buenos Aires (which is set to conclude on December 12). The crowd will know which of Cambioso’s rides are cloned because they will have serial numbers referencing his original pony (e.g Cuartetera B01).

A rival cloner in Argentina told the UK newspaper The Independent that the ponies are “85% as good as the originals”.

The ‘elephant’ in the room, of course, is not ponies but people. A conference on human genome editing next week will bring together scientists from the US National Academy of Sciences, the UK’s Royal Society and China’s Academy of Sciences. Nature Magazine says this may be the first step towards creating international guidelines.

Bai Chunli, president of the Chinese Academy tells the FT he would welcome them. “We would like to work together with the international community for the proper regulation of such techniques,” he stresses.

Meanwhile Chinese social media comment regarding Boyalife’s cloning factory in Tianjin have been largely negative. “Please serve cloned beef to our leaders first,” wrote one netizen, according to the New York Times.

The paper’s own subscribers do not hold back either. “With 117 boys for every 100 girls in China, one would guess that it’s only a matter of time before its 117:117,” one American reader speculates.

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