Using new genetic engineering techniques, Chinese scientists have successfully given life to low-fat pigs.
Yes, you read that right -- low-fat pigs.
In a paper published Oct. 23 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the scientists write they have engineered 12 healthy pigs that have about 24 percent less body fat than normal pigs.
The scientists said they wanted to engineer the low-fat pigs with the hope of providing pig farmers with animals that would be less expensive to raise and would be able to withstand cold weather.
"This is a big issue for the pig industry," said Jianguo Zhao of the Institute of Zoology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, who led the research. "It's pretty exciting."
The animals have less body fat because they possess a gene that allows them to regulate their body temperatures by burning fat. This gene could save farmers millions of dollars in heating and feeding costs, as well as prevent millions of piglets from suffering and dying in cold weather.
"They could maintain their body temperature much better, which means that they could survive better in the cold weather," Zhao said in an interview with National Public Radio.
Other researchers call the paper significant.
"This is a paper that is technologically quite important," said R. Michael Roberts, a professor in the department of animal sciences at the University of Missouri. Roberts edited the paper for the scientific journal.
"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," he explained.
But hurdles remain. Roberts doubts the Food and Drug Administration would approve a genetically modified pig for sale in the U.S. He's also skeptical that Americans would readily eat GMO pig meat.
"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," he said.
Opposition to Genetically Modified Food
FDA approval of a genetically modified salmon literally took decades. The new type of salmon offered for public consumption was hotly contested by both environmental and food-safety groups.
But some educators say they hope genetically modified livestock will eventually become more acceptable to regulators and more culinary to the public.
"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," said Chris Davies, an associate professor in the school of veterinary medicine at Utah State University in Logan, Utah.
Zhao said he doubts the genetic modification would affect the taste of meat from the pigs.
"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," he wrote in an email to NPR.
The Chinese scientists engineered the animals using a new gene-editing technique known as CRISPR-Cas9. It enables scientists to precisely and easily make changes in a subject's DNA.
Pigs lack a gene, called UCP1, which most other mammals have. The gene helps animals regulate their body temperatures in cold temperatures. The scientists edited a version of the gene found in mice into pig cells. They then used those cells to design and duplicate more than 2,553 cloned pig embryos.
Next, scientists implanted the embryos into 13 female pigs. Three of the female surrogate mother pigs became pregnant, producing 12 male piglets.
Tests on the piglets showed they were much better at regulating their body temperatures than normal pigs. They also had about 24 percent less fat on their bodies, the researchers reported.
"People like to eat the pork with less fat but higher lean meat," Zhao said.
The animals were slaughtered when they were six months old so scientists could analyze their bodies. They seemed perfectly healthy and normal, Zhao said.
And at least one male successfully mated, producing healthy offspring, he noted.