Different colors and flavors of pig?
The Chinese genomics institute BGI (Beijing Genomics Institute) has announced that tiny pigs, created through genetic-editing techniques, are now being sold as pets. The profits generated through revenue will be used to further develop research in this area.
Demand for pigs as pets has been growing, especially among the U.S public. Yong Li, director of BGI believes that in the future gene-editing techniques will allow the company to offer pigs with different colors and patterns, he told Nature.
In an article published in the Chinese journal Yi Chuan, in 2014, the researchers affirm that micro pigs’ creation involves the disabling of one of the two copies of a gene responsible for the growth of the pigs, the growth hormone receptor gene. The disabling of this gene is possible by the use of an enzyme known as TALEN (Transcription Activator-Like Effector Nuclease). This gene-editing technique results in pig cells that do not receive an appropriate signal to grow, leaving them with a weight of about fifteen kilograms as adults.
The investigators claim that the gene-editing techniques allow the rapid production of small animals for agricultural and biomedical research. The use of pigs as animal models for human diseases is justified by the genetic and physiological similarity with humans. However, due to a pig’s larger dimensions, when compared to mouse or rat models, their use is constrained by economical and logistical difficulties associated with their maintenance and manipulation. According to Li’s statements in Nature, micro pigs have already proven to be useful in studies of stem cells and gut microbiota, as a result of their smaller proportions.
BGI assumes that the gene-editing techniques do not bring any adverse health effects to the pigs. Nevertheless, the issue has already raised a lot of controversy. Animal rights activists argue that additional medical problems should be expected, just like what already happens with pets created through selective breeding, for example with pug dogs, who suffer from breathing difficulties. Geneticist Jens Boch express his concern in Nature: “It’s questionable whether we should impact the life, health and well-being of other animal species on this planet lightheartedly”. However, others argue that there is no significant difference from selective breeding, only the process is different and that the buzz around micro pigs will negatively affect the research around gene-editing techniques.
The need for a bio-ethical dialogue is obvious, as well as a clear definition of the regulations that apply to this specific situation. One perspective, for example, is that micro pigs can technically be seen as food. In declarations to the LA Times newspaper, Max Rothschild, an agriculture professor at Iowa State University, wonders if the FDA should take a different regulation approach than that applied to GMOs, because gene-editing techniques differ from those of genetically modified organisms.
There are still a lot of uncertainties regarding the future of micro pigs. One question remains unanswered: will they come in different colors and flavors?
Nature – Gene-edited ‘micropigs’ to be sold as pets at Chinese institute
LA Times – Pet micro pigs? Chinese biotech firm says it will sell very small swine
Li F, Li Y, Liu H, Zhang H, Liu C, Zhang X, Dou H, Yang W, & Du Y (2014). [Production of GHR double-allelic knockout Bama pig by TALENs and handmade cloning]. Yi chuan = Hereditas / Zhongguo yi chuan xue hui bian ji, 36 (9), 903-11 PMID: 25252308