Tech News Chatter: CRISPR Swine, Quantum Panic, and D.C. Bike Battles

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9:59 PM HKT, Tue October 24, 2017 3 mins read

Science never sleeps! Here are some China tech stories currently making the rounds.

First and foremost: CRISPR pigs. CRISPR, if you’re not familiar, describes short DNA sequences that scientists can use to directly edit genes. Though the technology was invented in the US (where rival teams of scientists are debating its ownership in patent court), China has had its fair share of CRISPR-related breakthroughs. The latest, outlined in a recently published paper, involves editing a gene responsible for a protein that regulates fat deposition in pigs, which theoretically would allow pig farmers to raise more robust herds in the future. NPR reports:

The scientists created low-fat pigs in the hopes of providing pig farmers with animals that would be less expensive to raise and would suffer less in cold weather. “This is a big issue for the pig industry,” says Jianguo Zhao of the Institute of Zoology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, who led the research. “It’s pretty exciting.” The animals have less body fat because they have a gene that allows them to regulate their body temperatures better by burning fat. That could save farmers millions of dollars in heating and feeding costs, as well as prevent millions of piglets from suffering and dying in cold weather.

Source: PNAS

This isn’t the first time China has made the news for gene-editing success in domesticated animals. Shenzhen genomics company BGI rolled out a genetically modified micropig a few years ago, which it sells as pets. And earlier this year, a dog was cloned from a gene-edited parent by Beijing biotech company Sinogene, which “plans to apply the technology to medical research, as well as to the cloning of police dogs and pets,” according to Sixth Tone.

This latest study is different in that its application would theoretically be to pigs destined to enter the food chain at some point — not pigs bred as pets or service animals. The NPR piece goes on to note that such CRISPR-edited pigs are unlikely to hit the US market any time soon: “The FDA has approved a genetically modified salmon, but the approval took decades and has been met with intense opposition from environmental and food-safety groups.” Seems this brave new world with such lean pigs in it will be a China exclusive for now.


Moving on: the quantum space race is heating up, and from some angles it looks like China is taking the lead. We’ve covered China’s space ambitions and quantum crypto breakthroughs recently, achievements that are resonating outside the realm of pure science. The D.C. bureau of the McClatchy news outlet has a real hand-wringer on this topic, likening China’s recent quantum advances to the USSR launching its Sputnik satellite in 1957, an event that effectively kicked off the space race. They interview a number of physicists on the North America side, who seem to agree that the issue isn’t the superiority of Chinese scientists, but a greater willingness by the Chinese government to fund the necessary research:

“It doesn’t necessarily mean that their scientists are better,” said Martin Laforest, a physicist and senior manager at the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. “It’s just that when they say, ‘We need a billion dollars to do this,’ bam, the money comes.” […] “The general feeling is that they’ll get there before us,” said Rene Copeland, a high-performance computer expert who is president of D-Wave (Government) Inc., a Vancouver-area company that uses aspects of quantum computing in its systems.

The counter argument to this is that many of the most advanced breakthroughs in quantum computing — especially any that might be relevant to issues of national security — are highly guarded state secrets. Neither the US nor China are likely to be showing their full hand, but for the time being China seems to have the edge in terms of public-facing, headline-grabbing wins.


Staying in D.C.: the US capital seems to have become ground zero for the battle of the bikeshares on American soil. Mobike brought their orange fleet over last month, and they’ve recently been joined by their chief home-turf rival, Beijing’s Ofo (the yellow one). Now there are some local competitors entering the fray, according to Scientific American:

But the sheer number of options in D.C. has made it ground zero for shared bikes. The wave began in 2007 with Capital Bikeshare, a system of docked cycles. Then came the dockless evolution: LimeBike, Mobike, oFo and Spin are four new privately funded companies. JUMP Mobility’s bikes, also new, have an electric motor, and they lock to pre-existing bike racks. The five competing companies will duel for ridership over the next six months; they can deploy up to 400 bikes each, per their agreement with D.C. officials.

This duel has real stakes, too: DC has pledged to cut its carbon emissions in half by 2032, and will presumably throw the support of its municipal government behind whichever of these bikeshare startups gains the highest adoption rate over the next few months. We’ll be curious to see how it pans out. It would be a moot point in China: no foreign competitor would be allowed to succeed over a Chinese company, which would enjoy a preferential and likely protectionist status. But since this technology was invented and scaled out to meet Chinese megacity proportions by companies like Mobike and Ofo, they may well have the logistical upper hand and beat out US-based competitors overseas.

We’re pretty obsessed with the whole bikeshare thing so stay tuned to Radii as this epic battle unfolds.


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