Two decades after the birth of Dolly the sheep—the world’s first successfully cloned mammal—the year 2016 will likely see the rise of mass-produced animal clones, thanks to an enterprising and madcap scientist in China.
Sometime in the next year, a company called Boyalife Genomics will open a massive factory in the coastal Chinese city of Tianjin, where it plans to clone 100,000 cattle per year—a way to address the Middle Kingdom’s rising appetite for beef. Eventually, the company aims to clone 1 million cattle a year, as well as other animals like champion racehorses and drug-sniffing dogs.
Cloned humans—or as Boyalife’s founder Xiao-Chun Xu calls them, “Frankensteins”—are not on the menu. Not yet.
Xu’s ultramodern factory—its layout is bigger than three football fields—is the latest manifestation of the sci-fi cloning craze that’s seen members of a Florida nonprofit try to clone a 2000-year-old tree, and a South Korean company clone two puppies in an attempt to reincarnate a British couple’s beloved dead dog.
Of course, scraping bark from a tree or sending in a vial of your dog’s DNA is far different from churning out 100,000 identical cattle. That level of efficiency, and speed is unprecedented, and Xu hopes it will change the future of animal reproduction.
The Chinese-born doctor, with a Ph.D. from Washington University and an MBA from Emory, is part nerdy scientist, part businessman, with that rare combination of brains and street smarts. After working as a project manager at Pfizer, he moved back to China where, in 2009, he founded a massive stem-cell database with the help of seven research institutes.
Three years later, Xu founded Boyalife Group, a $2 billion venture with four locations and 22 subsidiaries—the newest is Boyalife Genomics. While acting as founder and CEO of Boyalife, Xu is also an adjunct professor of molecular medicine at Peking University, where he’s heralded as an expert in everything from arthritis to oncology.
Prior to the announcement of his new cloning factory, the 44-year-old Xu had remained out of the global spotlight. But with the news that his Tianjin venture hopes to clone more mammals in a year than humanity has managed to clone in the previous 200,000, his phone has started ringing off the hook.
Cloning, or asexual reproduction, is a naturally occurring phenomenon in nature. A number of plants, bacteria, and single-celled organisms reproduce this way. Fungi, for example, split in two; strawberries grow clones of themselves on their stems.
Artificial cloning, which Xu’s team will use to make cattle, is decidedly more complicated. The science world recognizes three types of cloning: genetic, therapeutic, and reproductive. It’s the last one that’s used to clone whole animals, through a process called nuclear transfer.
To do this, researchers replace the DNA from a new cell with that of an animal they intend to clone. Eventually the modified egg is placed inside an adult female who later gives birth to the clone. While researchers reportedly cloned frogs as early as the 1950s, scientists weren’t able to successfully clone a mammal until decades later.
It was three scientists at the University of Edinburgh who achieved the feat, with the birth of a cloned sheep in 1996—the only one to succeed out of 277 attempts to live. The clone was named Dolly because it was made from the cell of a mammary gland and the researchers “couldn’t think of a more impressive pair than Dolly Parton’s.”
In the next four years, cloning as a science took off, with researchers producing successful clones of a Rhesus monkey, cow, goat, and more. Today a number of companies exist to clone animals, with some focused on farm livestock like bulls and cows, and others on an increasingly big business: family dogs.
The largest of these companies, Sooam Biotech, has reportedly cloned 700 puppies since opening in 2004. The South Korean firm actually paired with Xu to create Boyalife Genomics, but in an email to The Daily Beast, declined to comment on the new venture. But if its devotion to cloning dogs is any indication (“[we] heal the broken hearts”), it could play a big role in Boyalife’s future.
Yet even as companies like Sooam grow in popularity, anxiety has mounted around the idea of how far cloning could go. One of Sooam’s own researchers, Hwang Woo-suk, once alleged that he had cloned human embryos. The claim has since been struck down, but the fear associated with it definitely has not.
While the general public weighs the pros and cons of animal cloning, the legal world is doing the same. In the U.S., cloning of farm animals is legal—with the Federal Drug Administration declaring that these clones are as “safe as the food we eat every day.”
The same is true in China, but not everywhere. In August, the European Union edged closer to outlawing the practice all together, with the EU Parliament voting in favor of a sweeping cloning ban that would include farm animals.
Meanwhile, laws surrounding the cloning of humans remain murky. In the U.S., there is no federal law explicitly banning human clones—which is not to say that the practice is wholly legal. At least 15 states have passed legislation regarding human cloning—eight of which prohibit it entirely. The UN General Assembly banned the practice in 2005 and the science world as a whole rejects it as unethical and unsafe.
Leaders at The National Academy of Science have been petitioning for a worldwide ban on the practice since 2002, calling it “dangerous and likely to fail.” Among other outspoken organizations are the American Medical Association, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the FDA.
During a 2002 congressional hearing on human cloning, a researcher named Rudolf Jaenisch spelled out why he believed animal cloning was too dangerous to mimic in humans. Successful animal clones, he said, are preceded by many failed attempts. Those that make it are often plagued with health issues.
Indeed, reproductive cloning in animals—the same type that could in theory be used on humans—comes with immense risk. The percentage of cloning efforts that succeed is generally between 1 and 4 percent. In the few clones that survive, birth defects abound—ranging from brain deficiencies to drastically shortened life spans.
And even though he plans to clone 1 million cows one day, Xu, like the majority of his scientific peers, says he is gravely against the concept of human clones. “No, we don’t do human cloning, we won’t make Frankensteins,” Xu told NBC. “The technology we have is very advanced… [but] every technology has to have a boundary.”