The BBC recently reported that China has opened the world’s first cloning factory. It’s unclear how long this factory has been in operation, but according to the BBC report, it produces 500 cloned pigs per year for use in medical testing, and the company that owns the factory has ambitious plans for more cloning and more genetic research. Some people have described this cloning factory as “shocking” or “creepy.” We should be alarmed by these advances in Chinese science, or so we’re told.
The Chinese company behind this cloning factory, the Beijing Genomics Institute (or BGI), was the first to sequence the genome of rice, a staple food for much of the world. They also sequenced the genome of the SARS virus and developed a kit to help detect and treat that disease. Both of these research projects have surely served the greater good. Wang Jun, BGI’s chief executive, has been quoted saying, “If it tastes good, you should sequence it. You should know what’s in the genes of that species.”
I can’t argue with that. As we, the human race, plan to colonize other worlds and face the dangers of climate change here on Earth, shouldn’t we study those plants and animals we depend upon for food? Shouldn’t we be prepared to clone them if the need arises? Wang Jun’s other criteria for genetic sequencing include animals used for industrial purposes, especially in medical research, and also animals that look cute, such as penguins. Although some commentators have mocked these criteria, I don’t think Mr. Jun is being totally unreasonable. I like penguins. If sequencing penguin DNA will ensure that the species doesn’t go extinct, then I wholeheartedly support BGI’s efforts.
It should be noted that, according to the BBC article, this cloning factory is not exactly hygienic. Gene sequencing is being done essentially by hand with minimal computer support, and flies buzz about in the “laboratory” where cloned pig embryos are implanted into the uteruses of female pigs. Animal rights activists have cause for concern, but genetic research and cloning are not in and of themselves shocking or creepy. I suspect this cloning factory has alarmed people not so much because it exists but because it exists in China, a country that many in the West already consider a military and economic threat.
But what do you think? Should we worry, or is the alarm over this clone factory more about geo-political issues and less about the science itself?
P.S.: Click here to read the original article from the BBC by David Shukman.