Chinese company edits pig DNA, develops piglets that will stay pet-sized
BEIJING, China — Have you been longing for a “teacup” pig but worried that your pet might grow as big as your bathtub?
A Chinese company says it now has the answer: a swine that would weigh no more than about 33 pounds fully grown. The company, called BGI, created the pigs by changing their DNA, which contains the instructions for how each cell in the body works. DNA is passed on from parents to children.
BGI recently announced that it intends to start selling the miniature pigs for $1,600. The company originally created them to study human diseases.
The pigs made a splash late last month when BGI showed them at the Shenzhen International Biotech Leaders Summit in China. The pint-size porkers were created through a process known as gene editing. Scientists “edited,” or changed, the swine’s DNA, turning off a gene so that cells do not get a signal to grow.
Several celebrities have become known for their pet pigs. Miley Cyrus’ Bubba Sue and Paris Hilton’s Princess Piglette became so big they are hard to hold. George Clooney’s 18-year companion, Max, grew to 250 pounds before he died in 2006.
Pets, Not Pork
However, many people abandon pet pigs that grow too large. Animal breeders and experts say that a 33-pound pig could reduce this problem. Curt Mills works with the Southern California Association for Miniature Pot-Bellied Pigs. He says four shelters for the animals in California are full, with about 150 pigs looking for homes.
“Pigs are good pets, but a lot of issue is the size,” said Patty Morrisroe, a pig breeder in Dallas, Oregon. She says she has produced pigs that can be around 39 pounds fully grown. But only about 20 piglets are born each year, and she charges $2,500 to $5,500 for each one.
“If you could immediately make a small pig, it would be very cool, but there are still a lot of questions,” she said.
Staying In China, For Now
It is not known whether BGI intends to offer its pigs for sale outside China. If Americans wanted them, the United States 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 a biotechnology expert at the University of California, Davis. Van Eenennaam said the fact that the company is advertising them as pets, not pork, reflects another problem. Many people around the world are opposed to using gene-edited, or bioengeneered, animals for food and other more serious purposes.
Gene editing is a powerful technology, she said. It can produce animals that can resist disease. But worldwide, she said, no genetically changed animal has been approved to eat. Only a few medical products from genetically altered animals have even been allowed to be used to help humans. That, she believes, is making companies wary of spending money to develop the technology.
GloFish Are Friends, Not Food
People accept bioengineered pets, though, much more easily. A florescent fish, called GloFish, has been popular for a number of years in the United States. The fish were created by Singaporean researchers who 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."
A company called AquaBounty has been seeking for more than 20 years to win FDA approval to bring a genetically modified fast-growing salmon to supermarkets. The FDA stands for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and is the government agency in charge of making rules for food and medicines in the United States.
What Happened To Their DNA?
However, the technique used by BGI to create its micro pigs is different than the one used for the GloFish. And it could be a new problem if BGI wanted to bring the pigs to the United States.
Instead of adding DNA, the micro pig was made by removing a piece of its DNA, said Max Rothschild. He is an agriculture professor at Iowa State University.
Another question is how far gene editing should go.
Controversial Gene Editing
For several years, scientists have changed genes in adult human cells to make them resist disease. But this spring, a team of Chinese researchers announced that they had used gene editing to alter DNA in human embryos. They were trying to repair a defect that causes a blood condition that can sometimes be fatal.
Yong Li works for BGI. He said that any profits from BGI’s pet micro pigs would be put into medical research. BGI believes it can use gene-editing not just to control the size of pet pigs but also to give consumers a choice of pet-pig colors.
“We plan to take orders from customers now,” he said, “and see what the scale of the demand is.”