Researchers in China say they have developed a process to clone pigs entirely through the use of robots — a development that may help the world’s largest pork consumer reduce its reliance on imported breeding pigs.
In March, a surrogate mother gave birth to seven cloned piglets at the College of Artificial Intelligence at Nankai University in Tianjin.
“Each step of the cloning process was automated, and no human operation was involved,” Liu Yaowei, a member of the team that developed the system, said.
Liu added the use of robots had also increased the success rate of the cloning process because they were less likely to damage the cells while performing the intricate cloning process — a problem that scientists say has held back the wider use of the technique.
If it works, this automated system could be developed into a cloning kit that any company or research institution can buy to free scientists from labour-intensive, time-consuming manual cloning, said Pan Dengke, a former researcher with the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences who helped produce China’s first cloned pig in 2005.
Pan, the founder of Clonorgan Biotechnology in Chengdu, said he used to create more than 1,000 clones by hand every day, a process that was so time-consuming and complicated that he developed back pain as a result.
The most common technique to clone a viable embryo in the lab is called somatic cell nuclear transfer — a painstaking and time-consuming process conducted under a microscope.
It needs both an egg cell, or oocyte, and a body cell, also known as a somatic cell — the latter of which is taken from the animal to be cloned. Researchers remove the nucleus from the egg cell, which can come from another animal, and replace it with the one from the body cell.
In 2017, the Nankai University group produced the world’s first piglets to be cloned using robots, although Liu said some parts of the process — including the removal of the egg cell’s nucleus — still had to be done by humans.
Since then, the team has improved their control algorithms and can now do this automatically.
A peer-reviewed paper will soon appear in the journal Engineering to report the technical details, he said.
In the past five years, the team has also been able to improve the success rate of the development of cloned embryos from 21 per cent to 27.5 per cent, Liu said, as opposed to a 10 per cent success rate for manual operations.
“Our AI-powered system can calculate the strain within a cell and direct the robot to use minimal force to complete the cloning process, which reduces the cell damage caused by human hands,” he added.
Liu hopes that the advances can make high-quality pig stock more widely available in China, the world’s largest pork consumer and may even help the country to become self-sufficient amid fears it is vulnerable to import restrictions from the US and other Western countries.
Pan said the robotic cloning technique – as well as the broader science of micro-manipulation of cells — could have a wide range of applications in animal husbandry, including assisted reproduction and selective breeding.
He added that he looks forward to the commercialisation of robotic cloning, “which will undoubtedly have major, profound influences on the industries and the lives of the general public.”
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.