One of the most revolutionary techniques of modern biology is being put to work making smaller pigs. Nature is reporting that the Chinese genomic institute BGI has begin selling genetically altered micropigs, created as a byproduct of the institute's gene-editing work. At a summit last week in Shenzhen, the institute quoted an initial price of 10,000 yuan (or $1600), although the price is expected to change based on the market for the newly created animals.
The pigs, which weigh roughly 33 pounds when mature, were initially created as test animals to be used in the study of human stomach bacteria and other medical research. Researchers began by cloning a miniature Bama pig, and employed a gene-editing enzyme known as TALENs to disable one of the cloned pig's growth hormone receptor genes. The resulting pig was half the size of even the smallest Bama pigs, and after interbreeding male clones with female Bama pigs, half the offspring retained the small size of their cloned fathers.
The result is a cheap way to produce a smaller kind of pig — and for BGI, a potential source of revenue to fund their ongoing genetic research. A number of ethicists have raised concerns about the health of the animals, but BGI says it has observed no apparently health problems in the second-generation micropigs. The overall effects are likely to be similar to effects of selective breeding observed in many breeds of dog.
Still, it's a sign of the immense power of gene-editing tools, even when turned towards relatively trivial applications. In April, Chinese scientists performed gene-editing on human embryos in order to remove a fatal blood disease, raising serious questions about the ongoing ethical issues involved in the practice. Many scientists have already called for a worldwide ban on applying the techniques to human DNA.