New gene-editing research on pigs may help make the mammals less expensive to raise one day, especially during the winter. A team of scientists have genetically modified pigs to have nearly 25 percent less fat than average. The purpose of the study was to see if there was a way to stop pigs from freezing and dying during cold seasons, in order to help farmers financially with heating and feeding bills.
The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was conducted by scientists from the UK and China using a gene-editing technique called CRISPR-Cas9. The team produced 12 piglets, which were all male, from more than 2,500 pig embryos that had been injected with a mouse gene called UCP1. Since pigs don't have the UCP1 gene to help regulate their body temperature, the team inserted a mouse version to create leaner animals.
Similar experiments have been done in the past, and even though it has not always produced the perfect result, in this case it did help the pigs control their body temperature. According to the researchers, the pigs "showed an improved ability to maintain body temperature, decreased fat deposition, and increased carcass lean percentage."
To test the outcome, the mammals were later anesthetized and butchered, allowing the scientists to conduct further research. The outcome showed that the organs and tissues of the modified pigs were as normal as the pigs that hadn’t been genetically modified.
"This is a big issue for the pig industry," lead researcher Jianguo Zhao, from the Institute of Zoology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing told NPR. "It's pretty exciting."
In the paper, the team noted that "UCP1 KI pigs are a potentially valuable resource for the pig industry that can improve pig welfare and reduce economic losses."
A unique selling point includes low-fat pork for consumers, but it’s still not clear as to whether or not it would hit supermarkets soon, or even ever, for people to purchase.
R. Michael Roberts, a scientist from the University of Missouri, who edited the research paper for the scientific journal, told NPR: "I very much doubt that this particular pig will ever be imported into the USA – one thing – and secondly, whether it would ever be allowed to enter the food chain."