Pigs are now available in low fat. You read right. Geneticists in China have just successfully engineered the holy grail of hogs. These specially engineered pigs averaged 24 percent less body fat, according to NPR. The lower body fat reading translates to low-fat bacon and other pig products. To engineer fitter piggies, Chinese scientists used new CRISPR-CAS9 gene editing technology to insert the UCP1 gene, the new gene, into the porcine genome. UCP1 plays a vital role in body temperature regulation, and is common in most animals, but not in pig cells.
Lacking this gene, pigs relied on thick layers of fat to stay warm in the winter. Despite all of the fat, pigs remain highly susceptible to cold-weather related health problems.Using CRISPR, scientists rearranged and edited a mouse's UCP1 gene until it was effectively identical to that of a pig. Next, they cloned these modified UCP1 cells until they had enough cellular material for 2,553 pig embryos.
Finally, the cloned embryos were placed in 13 female pigs with three becoming pregnant. The three litters eventually produced 12 healthy piglets. The leader of the research team, Jianguo Zhao, insists pork from low-fat pigs will have the "same great taste, new low-calorie body". So how is the pig welfare after the gene edit?
According to the geneticist, "Since the pig breed we used in this study is famous for the meat quality, we assumed that the genetic modifications will not affect the taste of the meat." The healthy pigs are growing on schedule, and one male pig produced healthy offspring, leading to a promising future for the fate of the low-fat pig.
The Ethics Questions
But don't expect pork from genetically modified low-fat pigs to be in American grocery stores anytime soon. Understandably, many prominent public figures including philosophers, ethicists, economists, biologists, politicians, members of the clergy, and more, find such a prospect of engineering fit pigs alarming. We'll have to see how the Food and Drug Administration responds to this new development in the pig industry; after all, the FDA did approve pink pineapples once.
The issues surrounding GMOs touch a lot of very sensitive nerves for a lot of Americans; finding widespread acceptance will be a long, uphill battle. Historically, Americans have not welcomed genetically modified foods into United States grocery stores, let alone onto their dinner plates. This reluctance comes despite decades of research on their safety and nutritional advantages.
For instance: the challenges faced by salmon farmers in the '90s just getting their GMO products into stores illustrates the degree of collective distrust. It took decades of expensive suits, and numerous legal challenges by both sides before salmon farmers won out. It could be decades before we can chow-down on chicharrones or ham sandwiches made from genetically engineered pigs.