Earlier this year, a group of Chinese scientists published a paper about the modification of the genome of human embryos with the cutting-edge powerful technique called CRISPRs. The research arose ethical debates among scientists. Last September, Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI) has revealed another study that caused a new wave of disputes and concerns among scientists, ethicists and animal welfare organizations: they will start selling genetically engineering miniature pigs as pets.
These made-to-order and programmable micropigs are created using a gene-edited technique called TALENs, an enzyme that can target on a certain gene and disable it. A micropig can only grow up to 15 kilograms, and the institute quotes an estimated price of 1600 USD. Ideally, customers would also be able to select the customized coated colors and patterns.
To make these little pigs, BGI started from cloning an already small breed of pigs, the Bama pig. Scientists used the TALENs techniques to disable one or two copies of the growth hormone receptors in the cells. Without signals from receptors, the cells won’t receive the “message” to grow up and the growing process will stop. Then, scientists breed the clone male pigs together with normal female pigs. Half of their offspring will be the micro-sized baby pigs.
Micropigs have already been proved useful for the studies in stem cells and gut microbes. Because of their tiny sizes, and the genetic, anatomical, and physiological similarities between humans and pigs (compared to mice and other lab animals), they are commonly used nowadays as the models for researching on human diseases. BGI researchers want to start selling micropigs as pets as soon as possible, to evaluate the demand from the market and to raise money for the further research.
Your own pig pet with customized colors and patterns that will always stay cute and tiny, might sound attractive. However, this idea still arises conflicting opinions and debates.
First of all, are we going to let lab engineering genetic manipulated animals go out in the public? Will they disrupt the current ecosystem when they get into the wild? Secondly, GM animals are more likely to develop health problems, such as defeats in vital organs or problems with the immune system. BGI is trying to avoid any potential health problems related, and hasn’t observed any adverse health effects.
“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 Martin Luther University said in an interview with Nature News. On the other hand, some scientists have different ideas. If the micropigs are carefully regulated and evaluated, if their health conditions are equal to the normal pigs and the only difference is the size of body, there is no scientific reason to stop offering them for domestic purposes. Furthermore, genetic editing provides a more precise, predictable, and humane alternative for all kinds of domestic animals, compared to the method of selective breeding. Additionally, other scientists hope that we could simply establish strict and regulatory guidelines to monitor and assure the safe and ethical use of this technology, without denying all the potential it might create.