Playing god is part of your balanced breakfast.
Photo via Flickr user Kim Ahlström
Poor pigs. They've long had the short end of the stick when it comes to evolutionary genetics.
Most mammals have the crucial UCP1 gene, which gives them the ability to shed fat with efficiency, thus making them more resilient as it gets colder outside. Pigs lost UCP1 at some point along the evolutionary chain.
But there's a new kind of pig coming straight out of Beijing, where scientists have bred a dozen of these special animals. These aren't your typically plump porkers—they've got 24 percent less body fat than garden variety pigs, and they're equipped with UCP1, allowing them to thermoregulate and brave harsh winters, as NPR reports.
A report published on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences details the lengths a group of Chinese scientists, led by Jianguo Zhao of Beijing's Institute of Zoology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, went to in order to engineer these piglets. The researchers were able to make these genetic modifications thanks to the CRISPR-Cas9 technique, deriving the UCP1 gene from mice and then editing it into the makeup of the special pigs.
The fact that such a low-fat pig could even exist has pretty wide-ranging implications for farmers, Zhao tells NPR. Pig farmers are often burdened financially by this genetic shortcoming in their pigs: Farmers have to install heat lamps to keep their pigs warm, which translates to more money on their end, and in infancy, many piglets can't even survive such conditions—they simply end up dying. Introducing these pigs into the market would allow farmers to curb these costs of care.
What this breakthrough means on a consumer level, though, is tougher to determine at this point, beyond simply producing a low-fat bacon. Zhao doubts this genetic modification would alter the taste of their bacon much, but these pigs would just result in a leaner, less fatty bacon. Furthermore, it's highly unlikely that these pigs will be imported to the United States, R. Michael Roberts, a professor of animal sciences at the University of Missouri (who also served as an editor of the paper), tells NPR. He cites the fierce resistance genetically-engineered salmon encountered for years before finally being approved for sale by the FDA—a gnarly, two decade-long process during which it dangled in pre-approval purgatory.
Roberts doesn't anticipate that such a pig will make landfall in the States, where there's pervasive distrust of genetically modified food, or enter the food chain at all any time soon. Bummer!
But look on the bright side: While we may not know the taste of these skinny, genetically-reformed pig innards, we still have regular old full-fat bacon waiting.