CRISPR Bacon: Chinese Scientists Create Genetically Modified Low-Fat Pigs : The Salt Scientists have used CRISPR, a new gene-editing technique, to create pigs that can keep their bodies warmer, burning more fat to produce leaner meat.
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CRISPR Bacon: Chinese Scientists Create Genetically Modified Low-Fat Pigs

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CRISPR Bacon: Chinese Scientists Create Genetically Modified Low-Fat Pigs

CRISPR Bacon: Chinese Scientists Create Genetically Modified Low-Fat Pigs

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Here's a phrase that may sound like a contradiction - low-fat pigs. That's exactly what Chinese scientists have created using new genetic engineering techniques. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein explains why.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLIFF FRIEND AND DAVID FRANKLIN'S "THE MERRY-GO-ROUND BROKE DOWN")

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: You might remember this famous cartoon character from the "Looney Tunes" cartoons.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LOONEY TUNES")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Porky Pig) Now, wait a minute.

STEIN: Porky Pig, who got his name because he was, well, porky.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LOONEY TUNES")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Porky Pig) Told you I was a pig.

STEIN: But Jianguo Zhao of the Chinese Academy of Sciences wanted to make a better pig. I reached Zhao via Skype.

JIANGUO ZHAO: My research focused on making genetic modification in pigs.

STEIN: So he decided to make pigs with a gene that pigs are missing, a gene that most mammals have. It helps keep them warm when it's cold.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LOONEY TUNES")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Porky Pig) Wow, it's freezing cold all of a sudden. I better get that extra blanket.

STEIN: So Zhao used the latest genetic engineering techniques to make pig embryos with a mouse version of this missing gene. And it worked. A dozen piglets were born with better thermostats to regulate their body temperatures.

ZHAO: They could maintain their body temperature much more better, which means that they could survive better in the cold weather.

STEIN: Which could save pig farmers millions of dollars in heating costs and feed, and keep millions of piglets a lot happier and healthier in the winter. And that's not all. Because the pigs burn more fat to keep warm, Zhao says their bodies had about 24 percent less body fat than normal pigs.

ZHAO: It make the pig less fat, more lean meat.

STEIN: Less fat and more lean meat?

ZHAO: Yes.

STEIN: So these are pigs that are skinnier, they have less fat on them?

ZHAO: Yes. Yes. That's true.

STEIN: And why is that better?

ZHAO: People, I think, right now like - the consumer like to eat pork with less fat but higher lean meat.

STEIN: Because leaner pig meat's healthier. And so far, Zhao says the pigs seem perfectly healthy, too, normal in every other way, including probably how their meat tastes. Other scientists say the research is a significant advance.

MICHAEL ROBERTS: This is technologically quite important.

STEIN: Michael Roberts is a professor in the department of animal sciences at the University of Missouri.

ROBERTS: It demonstrates a way that you can improve the welfare of animals at the same time as also improving the product from those animals, the meat.

STEIN: But Roberts does have big questions about all this - would the Food and Drug Administration ever approve a genetically modified pig for sale in the United States? Would Americans eat it?

ROBERTS: I very much doubt that this particular pig will ever be imported into the USA, one thing, and secondly, whether it would ever be allowed to enter the food chain.

STEIN: Because so many people are still really opposed to genetically modified food. So who knows whether we'll ever see these low-fat pigs showing up in grocery stores in the United States any time soon? Rob Stein, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUDDY ROSS' "RUNNING AROUND")

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