The Latest Pet Trend: Genetically-Engineered Micro-Pigs

October 2, 2015 | Sarah Tse

Photo credit: Scott Bauer, U.S. Department of Agriculture (Image has been cropped)

If you've always dreamt of owning a teensy pet pig — and you have $1,600 of pocket change — now's your chance!

BGI, China's premier institute for gene editing research, has decided to test the market for its genetically altered micro-pigs, at an initial price of 10,000 yuan, or 1,600 USD. Based on the popularity of "teacup pigs," these new micro-pigs will probably start showing up on sidewalks and city parks. But while the piglets previously sold as teacup pigs eventually grow into normal-sized hogs, these adorable little micro-pigs have been genetically engineered to grow to a maximum size of 15 kg, the same weight as the average cocker spaniel. Interested buyers will be able to choose from a range of coat colors and patterns that the scientists will achieve through further gene editing.

SEE ALSO: Should We Use CRISPR to Edit Human Embryos?

The pigs were initially created as research models for human disease. Pigs actually share more physiological and genetic similarities with humans than mice or rats, but their large size makes it a bit cumbersome to keep them in labs. BGI researchers started with the Bama species, which are naturally less than half the size of a typical 100-kg farm pig, and then used a gene-altering technique called TALENs (transcription activator-like effector nucleases). These enzymes work by blocking genes so they can't be expressed into proteins. The researchers isolated cells from a Bama fetus and used TALENs to repress the gene for a growth hormone receptor. Without the receptor, natural growth hormones have no effect on cells and the pig doesn't grow as large as usual.

BGI has already used the micro-pigs for research on stem cells and gut microbiome, but they also want to promote their research by harnessing the pigs' irresistible cuddliness. When they introduced the micro-pigs at the Shenzhen International Biotech Leaders Summit in China, the exhibit was swarmed with porcine devotees. BGI plans to use any profits made from selling the pigs to further its research.

Of course, some members of the science community are reacting to this trend with less enthusiasm. The whole issue of gene-editing is fraught with controversy, with many scientists concerned about ethical and safety concerns. While most agree that genetically altering animals isn't much different from conventionally breeding them for selected traits, some researchers argue that such powerful tools shouldn't be used to meet the frivolous preferences of humans. They fear that selling these micro-pigs as pets will distract the public from more serious research goals, like curing human diseases and improving crops. As these micro-pigs hit the market, the scientific attitude towards gene-editing will continue to evolve.

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