Scientists Have Genetically Engineered Micropigs To Sell As Pets

A summit in Shenzhen, China, showcases the genetically engineered Bama breed of micropigs. BGI

A Chinese institute known for its breakthrough in genomic sequencing is now using its pioneering gene-editing technique to create and sell micropigs as pets. A portly pig will now weigh the same as a medium-sized dog – a mere 15 kilograms (33 pounds) in weight. BGI, the genomics institute planning to sell these puny pigs, claims the money will be reinvested into research. 

While micropigs as pets are not new on the market, those that have been gene-edited are. Previous mini-pigs, often called “teacup pigs,” are bred for their pint-sized traits, either through the breeding of runts or for the dwarfism gene. In this case, however, scientists shrunk the swines by using enzymes known as TALENs (transcription activator-like effector nucleases) to disable one of their two growth hormone receptor genes.

After gene-editing male fetal cells, the scientists then bred the stunted males with normal female pigs. As a result, only half their offspring were micropigs. The team chose this method in order to dodge the potential health hazards involved with cloning. 

Image Credit: A "teacup pig." Erik Lam / Shutterstock

BGI's originally intention in making micropigs was to advance scientific pursuits, as pigs are one of the better models for human diseases, largely due to organ and tissue similarities. According to BGI, these little pigs have already proved helpful in studies concerning stem cells and gut microbiota. Smaller pigs are also more manageable test subjects, as they require less lab space, drug doses and upkeep costs.

While cute, micropigs are controversial. Debate about the ethics of genetically engineered pets has already started. The reason is that problems can arise when evolution is manufactured and pets are bred for the sole purpose of smallness. Most other breeds are bred for desirable personalities, such as friendly, calm, and assertive. With micro-animals, the primary concern is size. The equation is simple: the smaller, the cuter, the better.

“It's questionable whether we should impact the life, health and well-being of other animal species on this planet light-heartedly,” geneticist Jens Boch from the Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg in Germany, told Nature.

So far, however, BGI says its gene-edited pigs have had no health concerns. In fact, future buyers may even have the option of pigs with customized coat colors and patterns. 

Yet, some question this practice of “stretching physiological limits for the sole purpose of satisfying idiosyncratic aesthetic preferences of humans.” Daniel Voytas, a geneticist at the University of Minnesota, worries that gene-edited micropigs will distract and even hamper progress in research that uses gene-editing techniques for medical and agricultural purposes

Others argue that gene-edited pigs are not that different from conventional breeding methods for dogs and cats. The real difference lies in the efficiency of gene-editing, which substantially cuts down on the effort, time and money of conventional breeding techniques. 

And for some mini-pig owners, the benefits are clear: In a tough economy, micro-sizing the animal can also mean micro-sizing the costs. Smaller animals need less space, less food, and less exercise. Cute or controversial, gene-edited micropigs will soon make their grand entrance into the pet world.

Body image: One of the BGI technicians holds a micropig.

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