Can tiny Chinese pigs be perfect pets? DNA changes raise concerns
BEIJING, China — Do you want a pet pig but worry it might grow as big as your bathtub?
A Chinese company says it now has the answer. It has created a pig that would weigh no more than about 33 pounds fully grown. The company, called BGI, made the tiny pig by changing its DNA. Your DNA holds the information for how each part of the body should grow and behave. Pigs have DNA too. It is passed on from parents to children.
Scientists "Edit" Pig Genes
BGI announced that it will start selling the miniature pigs for $1,600. The company originally created the animals to study human diseases.
They were made through a process called gene editing. Scientists “edited,” or changed, the swine’s DNA. They turned off a gene so that cells do not get a signal to grow. Genes are part of DNA. Each gene controls a different function in the body, like size or eye color.
Several celebrities have become known for their pig pets. Miley Cyrus’ Bubba Sue and Paris Hilton’s Princess Piglette grew so big they are hard to carry.
However, some people abandon pet pigs that grow too large. Experts say that more people would keep their pigs if they were smaller. Curt Mills is with the Southern California Association for Miniature Pot-Bellied Pigs. He says four local animal shelters are filled with abandoned pigs. About 150 pigs are looking for homes.
Small Pigs Make Good Pets
Pigs are good pets, but the big problem is their size, said Patty Morrisroe. She breeds pigs in Oregon. Morrisroe says she has produced pigs that will grow to about 39 pounds. But she can raise only about 20 piglets each year, and she charges $2,500 to $5,500 for each one.
It is not known whether BGI will sell its pigs outside China. If Americans wanted them, the U.S. government would have to decide whether they could be imported.
Alison Van Eenennaam visited BGI about three months ago and saw the micro pigs. She is an expert at the University of California, Davis.
Gene editing is a powerful technology, she said. It can produce animals that will stay healthier. Yet, many people do not want to eat animals with altered genes. No government has let a genetically changed animal be used for food, she said. Only a few genetically engineered animal products have even been approved for humans as medicine. Because companies cannot sell the animals for food, they are waiting before they spend more money on the technology, she said.
Friends, Not Food
People accept bioengineered pets much easier. A florescent fish, called GloFish, is popular in the United States. The fish were created by Singaporean scientists. They inserted jellyfish and sea anemone genes into zebrafish eggs.
“People are happy to have them in their aquarium," Van Eenennaam said. "But it’s when it’s on their dinner plate that they have a different attitude."
BGI created its micro pigs using a different method.
These Little Piggies Go To Market
Instead of adding DNA from another creature, the micro pig was made by removing a piece of its own DNA, said Max Rothschild. He is an agriculture professor at Iowa State University.
Yong Li is with BGI. He said that any money made from the pet micro pigs would be used for medical studies. BGI believes it can use gene-editing not just to control size of pet pigs, but also to give people a choice of colors.
“We plan to take orders from customers now,” he said. The company wants to see how interested people are.