Planet Earth

Genetically Modified Lean Pigs Are Healthier, Not Necessarily Tastier

D-briefBy Nathaniel ScharpingOct 25, 2017 5:20 PM

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(Credit: Shutterstock) Chinese scientists say they've found a way to take some of the sizzle out of our bacon. Though that sounds worrying, it was actually done with the pigs' health in mind. Pigs are so notoriously porky in part because they lack a gene, UCP1, that helps burn fat to generate heat. The result is plumper pigs, but it also poses an increased risk for newborns that can die if they're not kept warm enough.

Porky No More

With the gene-editing technology CRISPR, researchers from the Institute of Zoology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing put the UCP1 gene into pig embryos and implanted them into females. They were born with 24 percent less body fat, the researchers say, and fared better compared to normal pigs when faced with chilly conditions. They published their work Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The pigs also had a bit more lean meat relative to their body weight than their non-edited counterparts, and turned out perfectly healthy when they were tested after six months. The UCP1 gene is found in most other mammals, and pigs only lost it around 20 million years ago as they adapted to tropical climates. The researchers took the gene from mice and simply gave it back to the pigs.

Happier, But Not Hammier

The process could hold benefits for both pig farmers and consumers. Farmers would be better able to raise pigs in cold conditions, they'd need to feed them less to stay warm, and pork aficionados could enjoy healthier BLT's and ribs. The process of implanting the pigs isn't perfect at the moment — of over 2,500 embryos created, only 12 piglets were born — but as the technology gets better, those numbers could improve. Whether we'll ever see genetically slimmed-down pigs in the US is another question, however. Regulations on selling genetically modified organisms as food are currently extremely strict — the FDA only recently allowed for the sale of GMO salmon, although intense pressure from consumer advocacy groups have held up sales in stores. There's no word on how the modified pigs tasted yet, either. Is their sausage scrumptious and their tenderloin toothsome? Only time will tell.

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