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Making Bacon That's Healthier for You


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If you're trying to get into shape, even if it's not for a basketball championship, here's a story you'll want to hear. A team of researchers seems to have found a way to make bacon that's good for your heart. They've drawn on molecular genetics, cloning and good old American know-how.

NPR's Joe Palca has more.

JOE PALCA reporting:

It's generally, though not always, thought that consuming a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids helps prevent heart disease. Why isn't exactly clear, but that's another story. A diet high in omega-3 fatty acids means eating foods like flax seed and mackerel. Omega-3 is not present, to any great degree, in animals. But two years ago University of Pittsburgh scientist Yifan Dai saw a scientific paper that gave him an idea. The paper described a modified gene that could change omega-6 fatty acids, normally found in mammals, into omega-3. The paper showed if you put this altered gene into mice, you get mice with high levels of omega-3. Dai figured if it works for mice, why not bigger animals?

Mr. YIFAN DAI (Scientist, University of Pittsburgh): I realized we don't eat fish anymore, we can eat livestock, pork or maybe beef.

PALCA: Dai decided to start with pigs. The problem was, how do you get this gene into pigs? But Dai had already figured that out. Dai put the genes into pig cells in the lab and then turned things over to Randall Prather to get it into live pigs.

Mr. DAI: He's quite famous because he runs the pig cloning center and he has all the expertise to clone the pigs.

PALCA: The pig cloning center is at the University of Missouri and Prather says he was happy to help Dai with his scheme.

Dr. RANDALL PRATHER (Professor of Reproductive Biotechnology, University of Missouri-Columbia): I would like to get up in the morning and have some omega-3 bacon that was good for me.

PALCA: So Prather, or more accurately his post-Docs, got to work making cloned pigs. They did it the traditional way, if you can say such a word about a technology less than a decade old. You start with a pig egg and remove most of the egg's DNA.

Dr. PRATHER: And then you replace that with the donor cells or the cells in this case that came from Pittsburgh that were genetically modified and then you transfer those back into a pig and hopefully you'll get pigs out the other end at three months, three weeks and three days later.

PALCA: For those of you not up on porcine reproduction, that's a normal pig pregnancy. Sure enough, three months, three weeks and three days after transferring the embryos containing the modified gene, five litters of cloned pigs were born. And these modified piglets had way more omega-3 fatty acid than normal pigs have. Not nearly as much as fish, but still a lot for a pig. Piglet four had particularly high levels, but he also had a heart condition sometimes found in cloned pigs and three weeks after birth, his death seemed imminent, so Prather decided to clone him. Last November, a litter of piglet four clones was born.

Dr. PRATHER: We have five of them and these pigs will basically serve as the nucleus for a breeding herd. And we won't do any experiments on them, we will simply use them to produce more animals.

PALCA: Now lest you think that heart healthy bacon is just around the corner, Bob Wall of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal Research Service would like to add a note of caution.

Mr. BOB WALL (U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal Research Service): I think it's a little early to tell whether these animals, when they reach market weight, are gonna have the right body composition to achieve the nutritional goals that they have set themselves out for.

PALCA: And even if the adult pigs have all the right fat in all the right places, Wall says the Food and Drug Administration will want to take a good, long look at these pigs to make sure they're safe to eat. Besides, it will take at least a few years to breed enough of these pigs to bring them to market. But I have an idea that might get omega-3 meat on the table a bit faster. Jim Kang is a scientist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. He did the work in mice that showed that you could get mammals with omega-3 fatty acids in their bodies. I asked Kang how the amount of omega-3 in mice compared with the omega-3 in pigs.

Dr. JIM KANG (Scientist, Massachusetts General Hospital): The mice have a higher percentage of the omega-3 than what we have in the pig so far.

PALCA: So why don't you try to get people interested in a diet of mice?

Dr. KANG: You mean made of mice and use the mice as food?

PALCA: Yeah, yeah.

Dr. KANG: Yeah, this is possible. That's great.

PALCA: If Kang makes millions from minced mouse meat, I want ten percent. Joe Palca, NPR News, Washington.

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