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For $1,600 You Can Own a Genetically Altered Micropig

From lab animal to potential pet

(Vjeran Pavic via Flickr)
smithsonian.com

If you ever wanted a pig for a pet but didn’t want to buy the whole barn, you’re in luck: a Chinese genomics institute recently announced that they will start selling genetically-altered micropigs to the public as pets.

It may sounds like a plot from a Margaret Atwood novel, but as David Cyranoski reports for Nature, genetically-altered micropigs may be on the market soon. While originally bred as lab animals, the Shenzen-based BGI genomics institute recently announced that they will start selling the tiny lab pigs as pets in order to fund their research.

“We plan to take orders from customers now and see what the scale of the demand is,” Yong Li, the technical director of BGI’s animal science research tells Cyranoski. Li said that while the initial price of a pig has been set at $1,600, that quote was intended to help BGI figure out how much interest there might be in pet micropigs.

Because they are physiologically close to humans, BGI first started breeding micropigs as test animals for researching human stomach bacteria and new medications. Bred from the relatively small Bama pig, which can weigh about 70–100 pounds, the micropigs only weigh about 33 pounds at most, Russell Brandom writes for The Verge. BGI’s researchers used a common gene editing enzyme called TALENs to disable the growth hormone receptors of a cloned Bama pig. The miniature cloned Bamas were then bred with female Bama pigs, whose offspring stayed small.

While the pigs may be cute, BGI’s plan raises concerns from some ethicists who are worried about the implications of using gene editing tools to make pets out of existing species.

“It's questionable whether we should impact the life, health and well-being of other animal species on this planet light-heartedly,” geneticist Jens Boch, who helped create the TALENs enzyme, tells Cyranoski.

Cloned animals often have health problems that can lead to an early death. But BGI says breeding the original clones with unaltered Bama females has kept the micropigs from having debilitating health problems so far, Lydia Chain writes for Popular Science.

BGI’s plan may sound like science fiction, but they may find a big market for pet micropigs in the United States. So-called “teacup pigs” are popular pets around the country, but while they start out small they balloon into full-grown potbellied pigs after just a few years and can weigh up to 180 pounds, the Associated Press reports. The grown-up teacup pigs are often abandoned by families who can’t handle taking care of a pig that size. BGI’s micropigs might very well become an alternative to the teacups, as they stay at a manageable weight even through maturity.

But the size of the micropigs is just the first step: if they prove to be popular pets, the institute says it might even start letting buyers customize their pigs’ coat colors and patterns. If this happens, the micropigs could bring new meaning to the idea of designer pets.

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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