Outcry over gene editing to create pet micro-pigs

BEIJING • Genetic editing techniques used to create tiny pigs that are to be sold as pets have triggered a furore, with animal rights groups alleging that the creation of micro-pigs could be harmful to the animals.

The technique pioneered by scientists at the Beijing Genomics Institute was outlined in the science journal Nature last week. The micro-pigs were developed through a gene editing technique known as transcription activator-like effector nucleases, or Talens, which was applied to a small breed of pig known as Bama.

The animals were initially experimented on to help with stem cell experiments and other research, reported The Observer.

The result was tiny pigs that weigh about 15kg when mature, about the same as a medium-sized dog. The institute now plans to sell each micro-pig for about £1,000 (S$2,175) to raise cash for the institute. "We plan to take orders now and see what the scale of the demand is," said institute senior director Yong Li.

But animal rights groups and some scientists are horrified by the idea.

"The idea is completely unacceptable," Dr Penny Hawkins, head of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals' research animals department, told The Observer. "In the past, pets have been bred by selecting animals, generation by generation, to produce a desired trait. Inducing a massive change in one go risks creating animals that suffer all sorts of horrific impairments."

Even pet breeds created through standard methods of selection suffered grim afflictions, Dr Hawkins said.

"Pug dogs have been bred to have flat faces, but this makes it difficult for them to breath. They suffer from air hunger and many collapse. Similarly, Cavalier King Charles spaniels have been bred to have such small heads that their skulls are too small for their brains and they suffer considerable pain."

Geneticist Jens Boch at the Martin Luther University in Germany also sounded a note of caution.

"It's questionable whether we should impact the life, health and well-being of other animal species on this planet light-heartedly," he told Nature. But other scientists said gene modification may be a better method for creating tailor-made animals than natural methods.

"If the micro-pig is carefully evaluated and found to be equal in health compared to a normal pig and differs only in terms of size, there would be little scientific reason to block it from being offered as a pet," said reproductive biologist Willard Eyestone of Virginia State University.

But Dr Max Rothschild of Iowa State University said the use of gene modification to sell pets was a trivial use of the technology.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 05, 2015, with the headline 'Outcry over gene editing to create pet micro-pigs'. Print Edition | Subscribe