Yesterday, we wrote about how the Chinese will be selling genetically engineered micro-pigs as pets; the pigs, which were originally developed to serve as cheaper models for the human body, were engineered to grow only up to 25 kgs, but they also raise some important concerns: is it ethical? Should we engineer animals so that they make cuter or smaller pets? It’s only logical that cats and dogs soon get the same treatment, what happens there? Is genetically engineering really that different from specific breeding?

Image via BGI.

Now, some reputable scientists from the field have expressed their opinion, and as always, it’s quite interesting to see their perspective on the matter.

Dr. Max Rothschild, Distinguished Professor in Agriculture and Life Sciences, Iowa State University (webpage), whose expertise is in animal breeding and genetics, said:

“Pigs are very intelligent animals and have fascinated pet owners for years.  Some 20-30 years ago miniature pigs (100+lbs) became a craze in the US.  Unfortunately many owners were ill prepared to raise pigs as they lacked the husbandry and science knowledge to feed and care for them.  Many cities also had ordances against them.

“The new micro pigs produced by gene-editing are “cute” for some people.  They are still pigs and require that their owners have the knowledge to raise them properly.  Gene editing of livestock is considered by some as a GMO product and hence anti-GMO issues may play a role in consumer acceptance and future ownership issues in some countries.  Furthermore, this more trivial use of gene editing takes away from the important uses to improve livestock welfare, disease resistance and productivity.”

To me, this is the most important point. This is very advanced technology, and the effects are significant – and we’re using it in trivial ways, without understanding or caring about the consequences.

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Dr. Willard Eyestone, Research Associate Professor, Reproductive Biology / Biotechnology, Virginia Tech (webpage), who has mainly worked in developmental biology of laboratory and domestic animals, had a different perspective:

“My first reaction to learning about these ‘micropigs’ was how useful they could be as a research model, especially for long-term studies, during which even currently available ‘minipigs’ grow to substantial size (which of course is why they were made in the first place). Of course, their utility for research will depend on whether they are otherwise normal like a regular pig and unaffected by the edited gene other than their diminutive size. That said, the gene editing technique used to generate the micropig is designed to introduce extremely precise, targeted changes to the genome that have similarly precise and targeted effects on phenotype, in this case adult size, and it is very likely that size will be the only trait affected by this particular ‘edit’.

“Even if the micropig proves normal in every other way but size, it’s still a pig and technically a food animal, and the FDA at least reserves the right to regulate any genetic modification introduced into food animals. However, traditional FDA-regulated GMO’s generally contain larger segments of DNA added to the genome. In sharp contrast, the micropig was made by removing just a few, highly targeted letters of DNA from the genome. The FDA should be grappling with this major difference right now as to how it will affect regulatory policy, and whether gene edited organisms should be regulated in the same way as more traditional GMOs. I’m sure that at this stage the FDA will want to take the matter of marketing micropigs as pets under consideration.

“If the micropig is carefully evaluated and found to be equal in health compared to a normal pig and differs only in terms of size, then would be little scientific reason to block it from being offered as a pet. The ethics of whether the use of gene editing for altering traits in pets should be the subject of public debate. We must bear in mind that we have been altering the genetic make-up of pet animals for millennia, using the comparatively imprecise method of selective breeding, which sometimes results in less than healthy traits for the animal. Gene editing offers a much more precise and potentially humane method to achieve traits that are both useful and desirable for people and healthy for the animal. So in principal, gene editing should offer a far more predictable and humane alternative to selective breeding for all domestic animals, including pets.”

Dr. Kenneth Bondioli, Professor of Animal Sciences, Louisiana State University (webpage), who has worked on transgenic animal models for biomedical and agricultural applications believes the problem is about the animal welfare – not the technique used to obtain them.

“People have been keeping miniature pigs as pets for years. As always the animals need to be evaluated not the technology used to generate them. Some of the questions that come immediately to mind include: Are the animals healthy? Is there an animal welfare concern? If they were to be released or escaped would they represent an unusual threat to the environment or other livestock (see the feral pig problem in the Southern US)? If they were to be imported from China that would be a potential problem. A few pigs have been imported from China but under very restricted conditions. If these and other questions are addressed the fact that they are GE is irrelevant.”

 

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