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Posted at: Oct 4, 2015, 5:40 PM; last updated: Oct 4, 2015, 5:40 PM (IST)

Genetically-modified Chinese micropig pets spark rights outrage

London/Beijing, October 4

Tiny pigs, created by genetic editing techniques pioneered by Chinese scientists, are set to be sold as pets soon, triggering a row between animal rights groups and scientists.

Some say the creation of pet micro-pigs could cause considerable pain to the animals. Others say the use of gene editing techniques would be an improvement in standard animal breeding methods and cause less suffering.

The news that the micro-pigs had been created by scientists at the Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI) was published in science journal Nature last week.

The micro-pigs were developed by applying a gene editing technology called Talens – transcription activator-like effector nucleases – to a small breed of pig known as Bama.

The resulting micro-pigs weigh about 15kg when mature, roughly the same as a medium-sized dog. Many farm pigs weigh more than 100kg.

Each micro-pig will be sold for 10,000 yuan, about 1,000 pounds. Customers will also be able to select the animal's colour and coat pattern, which the BGI says can be achieved by manipulating its genetic make-up using Talens.

The animals, developed to help with stem cell experiments and other research, are to be sold to raise cash for the institute, The Guardian reported.

"We plan to take orders now and see what the scale of the demand is," said a senior BGI director, Yong Li.

But the idea has horrified animal rights groups, and some scientists.

"The idea is completely unacceptable," Dr Penny Hawkins, head of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals's research animals department, told the Observer.

Hawkins added that many pet breeds, created through standard methods of selection, already suffer diseases.

"Pug dogs have been bred to have flat faces, but this makes it difficult for them to breath. They suffer from air hunger and many collapse.

"We have to move away from the idea that we can pick our companion animals purely because of their cuteness and size.

The idea of creating micro-pigs is a very big step in the wrong direction."

Geneticist Jens Boch at the Martin Luther University in Germany was also cautious.

"It's questionable whether we should impact the life, health and well-being of other animal species on this planet light-heartedly," he told Nature.

However, other scientists say there is no reason not to take the idea of genetically modified pets as a serious concept.

"If the micro-pig is carefully evaluated and found to be equal in health compared to a normal pig and differs only in terms of size, there would be little scientific reason to block it from being offered as a pet," said reproductive biologist Willard Eyestone, of Virginia State University. — PTI

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