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Genetically engineered micropigs to be sold as pets

A genomics institute in China plans to bring a brand new kind of pet into the world -- customizable mini-pigs.

Over the years, chihuahuas have become chihuahuas and pugs have become pugs because people have bred those dogs to bring out certain traits and inhibit others. A genomics institute in China called BGI is doing the same thing with pigs -- but in a much faster way.

The Shenzhen-based company started with a small breed of pig called a Bama. It then used a gene-editing technique to make that already small pig even smaller. On September 23, the company announced at a summit in Shenzhen that it would start selling the micropigs for 10,000 yuan (about $1,570, £1,037, AU$2,245). Customers will be able to choose their very own pig color and coat patterns, which the company can create through further gene editing.

Would you like this as your family pet? A Chinese genomics institute thinks you might. BGI

The animals weren't originally created to be pets. They were brought to life to help study human disease, because pigs are closer to humans than either rats or mice in terms of their physiology and genetic makeup, according to Nature magazine, which reported this story Tuesday. In addition to finding their way into homes, the micropigs will also continue to be used in research, potentially helping scientists learn more about a condition called Laron syndrome that causes dwarfism. Proceeds from the sale of the pigs will aid this research.

To create the animals, which grow to be about 33 pounds (15 kilograms), the scientists at BGI used enzymes called TALENs (transcription activator-like effector nucleases) to turn off a growth-hormone-receptor gene in pigs they cloned from a Bama fetus. This produced the first micropigs. Male micropigs were then bred with normal female Bamas. That breeding led to 50 percent of the offspring becoming micropigs. Although that's a relatively low success rate, the complicated nature of the cloning process actually makes the breeding program more efficient.

But even the man who helped create the TALENs method of gene editing is wary about the process. "It's questionable whether we should impact the life, health and well-being of other animal species on this planet light-heartedly," geneticist Jens Boch of the Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg in Germany told Nature.

BGI says it has seen no negative health effects in the micropigs from the genetic-engineering process.