A leading Chinese genomics institute has produced a new type of miniature pig using innovative gene-editing methods, and soon they will begin selling the pigs as pets.
Shenzhen’s BGI is the genomics institute behind the breakthrough. As the largest genomics organization in the world, they are already well-known for several other high-profile breakthroughs in genomic sequencing.
The micropigs were originally developed as models for human diseases, by editing the genes of a small breed of pig known as Bama. To make the gene-edited pigs, BGI cloned the animals using cells from a Bama fetus, then used TALENs (transcription activator-like effector nucleases) to disable one of two copies of the growth hormone receptor gene (GHR) in the fetal cells. By doing this, they eliminated the signal sent to the cells to grow during development, resulting in undersized adult pigs.
Scientists then bred the altered male clones with normal females, which resulted in about half the offspring being micropigs. Of the 20 second-generation gene-edited pigs, no adverse health effects have been observed.
On September 23rd BGI announced that they would start selling the pigs as pets. The price tag is expected to be around 10,000 yuan, or about $1,600. Full-grown, the pigs weigh about 33 pounds (15 kilograms), which is approximately the same size as a medium-sized dog. In the future, customers will be able to purchase pigs with different color coats and patterns, which can be altered through further gene editing.
Profits from the sale of the pets will be invested in medical research, in addition to assisting with the need to regulate gene editing in pets. BGI will continue to use the altered pigs in studies of stem cells and gut microbiota, in addition to learning more about Laron syndrome, which causes dwarfism.
The scientists chose pigs because, in comparison with rats or mice, pigs are closer to humans physiologically and genetically. This potentially makes them more useful as a model organism for human disease. Bama pigs, which weigh about half that of most farm pigs, which are 77-110 pounds (35-50 kilograms), have previously been used in research.
Jens Boch of the Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg in Germany, one of the developers of the technique used to create the pig, cautions, “It’s questionable whether we should impact the life, health and well-being of other animal species on this planet light-heartedly.”
While people have been altering the genes of domesticated animals for thousands of years using selective breeding, this latest development leaves us wondering, what’s next?