TECH

Gene-Editing Has Let Scientists Create A 'Low Fat' Pig, But It Raises Worrying Questions

Is a healthier butty worth it?🐷

25/10/2017 13:41 BST

If a low fat bacon sandwich sounds like the stuff of hangover dreams, then a recent development by scientists in China could be right up your street.

A team have used the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing tool to develop a group of 12 pigs that have 24% less body fat than normal animals, saving calories for consumers and money for farmers.

But it isn’t all good news, as it raises some worrying questions about the future of food production.

NeilyImagery via Getty Images

The paper, published on Monday, was not initially focused on creating skinner pigs for the sake of our stomachs, but in order to help the agricultural industry with the astronomical costs of keeping piglets warm.

Pigs do not have a special protein called UCP1 in their white adipose tissue that allows them to regulate their body temperature (their thermogenic capacity) and burn body fat.

Without this functioning protein they are susceptible to the cold, meaning farmers have to spend more keeping them warm in order to stop piglets dying.

The lack of this fat-burning protein also means that they have a tendency towards fat accumulation, and thus influences the efficiency of pig production.

One of the study’s lead authors Jianguo Zhao, said that altering this protein - which they did by editing a mouse version of the gene, inserting it into pig cells and creating cloned embryos - would give them a better chance of survival in harsh environments.

And it was only a byproduct of this work that created the lower fat bacon.

Although this sounds promising for customers, and Zhao promises that the genetic modification wouldn’t even affect the taste of the meat, it does raise a lot of questions about the future of DNA alteration.

On one side of the argument, proponents say it could potentially feed millions throughout the world. On the other side, opponents fear unpredictable consequences to our food crops and the potential disastrous effects of meddling with DNA itself.

And of course in order for such a product to ever reach our shelves, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) in the UK, or the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the USA, would have to allow it.

In both countries currently the regulations around CRISPR-food are unclear.

A UK government Commons Committee in 2016 launched an investigation into whether CRISPR-edited products would be subject to the same laws as other genetically modified foods, which are currently fully supported.

They say: “[The government] sees them [GM foods] as one of the options for making agriculture more efficient and sustainable, and which could therefore help to address future challenges on food production.

“The government also wants our farmers and businesses to have access to the best technology available to remain competitive and encourage economic growth. It is therefore supportive of the opportunities that advanced breeding techniques could bring in that respect.”

But whether or not CRISPR would be susceptible to the same laws is unclear.