SCIENCE
10/04/2015 09:42 am ET

China Is Genetically Engineering Mini Pigs To Sell As Pets

The $1,600 mini pigs are created using gene-editing techniques and cloning.

We'd all like our baby pets to stay perpetually tiny, but scientists in China are taking that desire to a whole new level.

BGI, a genomics institute located in Shenzhen, announced in late September that it is genetically engineering miniature pigs to sell as pets for $1,600 each.

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BGI's genetically engineered pigs are not to be confused with teacup pigs (pictured above, on the right), which, according to The Dodo, are actually stunted potbellied pigs.

The institute creates the micropigs by using a gene-editing technique that alters the genomes of a Bama -- an already small breed of pig -- to make it even smaller. BGI uses TALENs (an enzyme) to disable one of two copies of the growth hormone receptor gene in a Bama's fetal cells. 

BGI then clones pigs from the fetus, which produces stunted male Bama clones that are, in turn, naturally bred with normal females. Half of the resulting offspring are micropigs.

Unlike normal Bamas -- which can weigh up to 100 pounds -- these lab-created pigs only grow up to 30 pounds when mature, around the same weight as a medium-sized dog.

The micropigs were originally used as lab animals that acted as models for human disease, according to Nature magazine. Pigs, specifically smaller breeds of pig, are commonly used as model organisms in biomedical research because they "closely [resemble] man in anatomy, physiology and genetics," according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

Erik S. Lesser via Getty Images
In 2005, the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia, and ProLinia Inc. produced healthy cloned piglets (shown above) from the skin cells of a commercial hog.

According to Yong Li, technical director of BGI's animal-science platform, BGI has not observed any health problems associated with cloning in any of the gene-edited pigs they've produced.

In the future, the institute promises to offer miniature pigs in a variety of coat colors and patterns, which will be achieved through further gene editing. 

While BGI feels confident about bringing genetically modified micropigs to the public, other experts remain skeptical.

"Obviously, this has to be regulated," Yusuff Abdu, a researcher at New York University's School of Medicine, told Inverse.com. "You can't let lab-engineered animals out into the public. There is a high chance they could get into the wild and offset an ecosystem if they happen to have an advantageous trait. Lab rats and mice are kept out of pet stores for this reason."  

For its part, BGI says that the profits made from selling the micropigs as pets will be invested in research that explores how gene editing in pets and in medical research can be regulated.

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