China takes cloning to industrial level
YOU hear the squeals of the pigs long before reaching a set of long buildings set in rolling hills in Shenzhen.
Feeding time produces a frenzy as the animals strain against the railings around their pens. But this is no ordinary farm.
Run by a fast-growing company called BGI, this facility has become the world's largest centre for the cloning of pigs.
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.
A room next to the pens serves as a surgery and a sow is under anaesthesia, lying on its back on an operating table. An oxygen mask is fitted over its snout and it is breathing steadily. Blue plastic bags cover its 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 point of the work is to use pigs to test out new medicines. Because they are so similar genetically to humans, pigs can serve as useful "models".
One batch of particularly small pigs has had a growth gene removed - they stopped growing at the age of one.
Others have had their DNA tinkered with to try to make them more susceptible to Alzheimer's.
The scientist in charge, Dr Du Yutao, explained the process in a way that left me reeling.
"We can do cloning on a very large scale," she said. "Thirty to 50 people together doing cloning, so that we can make a cloning factory here."
BGI chief executive Wang Jun was keen to stress that all this work must be relevant to ordinary people through better health care or tastier food.
The BGI canteen is used as a test bed for some of the products from the labs: Everything from grouper twice the normal size, to pigs and yogurt.
I asked Dr Wang how he chooses what to sequence.
He said: "If it tastes good, you should sequence it."
Another reason he cites is industrial use - raising yields, for example, or benefits for health care.
"A third category is if it looks cute - anything that looks cute: Panda, polar bear, penguin, you should really sequence it - it's like digitalising all these wonderful species," he said.