Cloning has progressed well since Dolly, and today more often than not, it is the artificial intelligence that promises to take this discipline to the next level.
Last March, seven completely healthy pigs were born in China. But they had a specialty; Unlike the majority of their congeners, they did not come to earth on a farm or breeding center; They came out of a Chinese laboratory after a completely new kind of cloning process, which is completely powered by AI and is able to work without any human intervention.
A sentence that seems to be directly outside of science fiction, but which nonetheless refers to an action that cannot be more serious. The researchers behind the study believe the technology allows China to solve its pork supply problems, but not just; Over time, this could play an important role in the future of global agro-food.
Under Dolly’s feet
It all started with Dolly, a famous sheep that in 1996 became the first mammal to be completely cloned from an adult cell. At the time, it was a real achievement in bioengineering that had been dedicated for many years. ‘Test. Because science fiction has nothing to do with the cloning method that is used; Until now, people have not yet invented a printer that is capable of making an exact copy of an organism in real time.
Instead, they use a process called nuclear somatic cell transfer (SCNT) that begins with genetic manipulation. Researchers began by cloning the nucleus of an animal’s mammalian gland to clone, the part where the genetic material is concentrated. These are called mammalian gland cells Somatic. It is a word that refers to everyone Non-sexual cells, and that is why they are not supposed to participate in reproduction.
In a second animal, they then took eggs which they emptied this time of their genetic material. Very obscenely, they just left the shell empty. They then mix this envelope with the nucleus taken in the previous step to reconstruct the artificial embryo which they later cultured to allow their growth. One of them has finally matured; And since All genetic material came from a single parent, So they are perfect copies, without some mutations – So we’re talking about clones.
Since then, researchers have made great strides in this technique; Many laboratories have been successful in cloning different and varied animals. So some observers had hoped that the strategy would be established in the food industry very soon, especially since several authorities, such as the American FDA, have speculated that These cloned animals were edible.
Traditional cloning remains very complex
But even though it has actually progressed, mammal cloning has not yet brought the absolute industrial revolution that some had hoped for. And for good reason: the technique used is time consuming and necessary Fine observation From an expert. The latter must be a very talented manipulator, as this is the replacement of the nucleus Very subtle
Even among the most skilled laboratory staff, this highly fragile genetic material is therefore regularly damaged or contaminated. It has the effect of inhibiting the growth of clones. In addition, there is a whole host of very subtle external factors that can cause the procedure to fail without people knowing it properly.
For several years, Chinese researchers at Nankai University have been working to develop a fully automated cloning system. In 2017, they demonstrated for the first time a partially automated TNSC system. One step is still far from their purpose, but that allows them to make a decisive point: machines have much lower handling errors than humans, and the cloning success rate is therefore much higher in this situation.
Artificial intelligence in rescue
Equipped with this experience they take the next step; They present an artificial intelligence-based system that is capable of performing this process with amazing pressure and without any human intervention.
“Our AI-based systems can calculate the amount of pressure that must be applied to the cell to force the robot to intervene as little as possible during the cloning process, minimizing cell damage caused by human hands.”, The researchers explain. And numbers prove them right. On average, the success rate of this TNSC is about 10%; Here, the researchers reached about 25%, which is a drastic increase.
According to the South China Morning Post, researchers are currently editing a research paper on technical details that will be published in the journal. Engineering. So it would be very interesting to search in it to discover the technical details of the method. They hope that their strategy will allow China, the world’s largest consumer of pork, to have permanent access to excellent quality animals without relying on imports.
But this is only a first step. Ultimately, researchers consider that robotic cloning techniques – or more broadly automated cell micromanipulation – will certainly have a major impact on all industries that work directly or indirectly with cattle.
Obviously, there is still a long way to go; The strategy is not yet fully mature, both technically and ethically and regulatory. But once that happens, we must expect a small revolution in selection, breeding and even species conservation that is threatened today by over-exploitation.