A team of Chinese scientists has created genetically modified piglets with around 24 percent less body fat than regular pigs. The CRISPR modification is intended to help the pigs adapt to colder weather conditions but the secondary implication is undoubtedly clear – low-fat CRISPR bacon!
Uncoupling protein 1 (UCP1) is a protein generally found in brown adipose tissue and known to protect against cold by stimulating the process of thermogenesis. Modern pigs are one of the few mammals to lack a functional UCP1 gene meaning they have a tendency to accumulate more fat than other mammals.
Using the CRISPR gene-editing technique the scientists successfully incorporated a mouse UCP1 gene into a series of pig embryos. Twelve healthy male piglets were subsequently born with, on average, about 24 percent less fat on their bodies. The genetically modified pigs also displayed an improved ability to maintain body temperature, which the researchers argue improves the welfare of the pigs and reduces economic costs of heating for the farmer.
"This is a paper that is technologically quite important," says R. Michael Roberts in an interview with NPR. "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."
Roberts, a professor from the University of Missouri who edited the paper for the scientific journal PNAS, while suggesting the work is scientifically significant, also expressed doubts that the pigs would ever actually be approved for human consumption in the United States.
In 2015, after two decades of consideration, the FDA finally approved the first ever genetically modified animal for human consumption. The animal was an Atlantic salmon with a growth hormone gene added to its DNA that halves the time it takes to grow to market size.
The approval of the genetically modified salmon for human consumption was not without its critics, with the Center for Food Safety calling the FDA process "inadequate".
Using CRISPR gene-editing to tinker with food is still mostly a no-go for scientists around the world. A team in Europe last year exploited an interesting loophole in the tough EU GMO regulations and cultivated a CRISPR-modified cabbage but GMO foods are still mostly disallowed in western nations.
China on the other hand has been pushing forward in genetic modifications of its food stuffs. One of the more controversial recent achievements in the country was the genetic modification of a herd of cattle to produce human breast milk.
It's hard to predict whether these new low-fat piglets will be a footnote in science or something we can buy in supermarkets in a few years. What we can be sure of is this will not be the last strange CRISPR-modified animal to appear.
The research was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.