By David Cyranoski
Cutting-edge gene-editing techniques have produced an unexpected byproduct — tiny pigs that a leading Chinese genomics institute will soon sell as pets.
BGI in Shenzhen, the genomics institute that is famous for a series of high-profile breakthroughs in genomic sequencing, originally created the micropigs as models for human disease, by applying a gene-editing technique to a small breed of pig known as Bama. On September 23, at the Shenzhen International Biotech Leaders Summit in China, BGI revealed that it would start selling the pigs as pets. The animals weigh about 15 kilograms when mature, or about the same as a medium-sized dog.
At the summit, the institute quoted a price tag of 10,000 yuan (US$1,600) for the micropigs, but that was just to “help us better evaluate the market”, says Yong Li, technical director of BGI’s animal-science platform. In future, customers will be offered pigs with different coat colours and patterns, which BGI says it can also set through gene editing.
With gene editing taking biology by storm, the field’s pioneers say that the application to pets was no big surprise. Some also caution against it. “It’s questionable whether we should impact the life, health and well-being of other animal species on this planet light-heartedly,” says geneticist Jens Boch at the Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg in Germany. Boch helped to develop the gene-editing technique used to create the pigs, which uses enzymes known as TALENs (transcription activator-like effector nucleases) to disable certain genes.
How to regulate the various applications of gene-editing is an open question that scientists are already discussing with agencies across the world. BGI agrees on the need to regulate gene editing in pets as well as in the medical research applications that make up the core of its micropig activities. Any profits from the sale of pets will be invested in this research. “We plan to take orders from customers now and see what the scale of the demand is,” says Li.
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