Low-fat pigs sound like a contradiction, but they do exist now, thanks to CRISPR technology.
Chinese researchers in Beijing said that they have successfully created twelve low-fat pigs using the controversial gene editing technology, CRISPR.
In a study published on Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the Chinese scientists documented how they created one dozen ‘healthy’ pigs with about 24 percent less body fat as compared to typical pigs of the same breed.Chinese scientists just created low-fat pigs using #CRISPR gene editing tech.Click To Tweet
The scientists claimed that they hope their low-fat pigs can help pig farmers raise animals that regulate temperature by burning more body fat and actually suffer less during the winter season–when expensive heating and shelter costs farmers millions. Apparently, according to the scientists, the low-fat pigs could potentially cut the cost of pork-production by several million dollars.
Jianguo Zhao of the Institute of Zoology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing said:
“This is a big issue for the pig industry. It’s pretty exciting.”
Creating Low-Fat Pigs Through CRISPR Gene Editing Technology
According to the study, these pigs lack functional uncoupling protein 1 (UCP1) which is critical in providing them protection against cold. The scientists used CRISPR-Cas9 to insert a mouse version of the UCP1 into pigs cells which they used to create more than 2,500 cloned pig embryos. They wrote:
“Uncoupling protein 1 (UCP1) is responsible for brown adipose tissue-mediated thermogenesis and plays a critical role in protecting against cold and regulating energy homeostasis. Modern pigs lack functional UCP1, which makes them susceptible to cold and prone to fat deposition and results in neonatal mortality and decreased production efficiency.
In the current study, a CRISPR/Cas9-mediated homologous recombination-independent approach was established, and mouse adiponectin-UCP1 was efficiently inserted into the porcine endogenous UCP1 locus.”
After creating genetically-modified, cloned pig embryos, the Chinese scientists implanted them into 13 female pigs. Out of the 13 test subjects, only 3 surrogate mother pigs became pregnant and actually gave birth to 12 male piglets dubbed as UCP1 KI pigs.
Upon further analysis, the piglets showed better body temperature regulation than ordinary pigs. The animals were also reported to only have 24 percent less body fat. The researchers stated:
“The resultant UCP1 KI pigs showed an improved ability to maintain body temperature, decreased fat deposition, and increased carcass lean percentage.”
The low-fat pigs were slaughtered when they were six months old so scientists could further analyze their body compositions. Zhao said that the pigs appeared to be normal and healthy, with one male reported to have mated and produced offspring.
CRISPR Tech Controversy
While CRISPR is considered as one of the most advanced technologies we have today, it is also one of the most controversial because of its implications. Conservatives and progressives alike have shown opposition to the tech, especially when used in studies to alter or add to human genes.
However, this breakthrough in animal gene editing is deemed by Michael R. Roberts, a professor in the Department of Animal Sciences at the University of Missouri, as highly significant. He said:
“This is a paper that is technologically quite important. It demonstrates a way that you can improve the welfare of animals at the same as also improving the product from those animals — the meat.”
Still, Roberts, who also edited the paper for the scientific journal, has doubts if the U.S. Food and Drug Administration would ever approve the distribution of genetically modified, low-fat pigs in the United States.
“I very much doubt that this particular pig will ever be imported into the USA — one thing — and secondly, whether it would ever be allowed to enter the food chain,” Roberts went on to say.
While FDA has approved the sale of genetically modified salmon in the country, it took the agency decades to approve it because of opposition from environmental and food-safety groups.
On the other hand, experts like Chris Davies, an associate professor in the School of Veterinary Medicine at Utah State University, hope that the regulators would be more accepting when it comes to GMO livestock.
“The population of our planet is predicted to reach about 10 billion by 2050, and we need to use modern genetic approaches to help us increase the food supply to feed that growing population,” he said.