Renewable Matter # 08 / January-February

Micropigs from Beijing

by Federico Pedrocchi

More or less the size of Snoopy, they are a little bigger than a cat. They weigh around 15 kilograms, far less than the 100 kilograms of normal pigs. Nevertheless, they are still hogs. Pigs, not from Guinea, because they are made in Beijing, at the Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI).

It is a pet market creation and it is successful – they say – because – true – we all love pigs, regardless of their size. Kids too – those lucky enough to meet a piglet in the countryside, are mad about them. The project started with an alteration of the growth hormone of an Asian hog, the Bama pig, which is already a small-sized hog, although it weighs around 35 kilograms. By disabling the growth hormone receptors, as I said before, specimens weighing 15 kilograms have been obtained. These were made to mate with normal Bama sows. As expected, the resulting offspring were a mixture of large and small piglets. Then, only the small ones have sex. Mission accomplished. 

There has been some ethical as well as cultural criticism: why carry out genetic experiments for the sake of our Disney animal fantasies? Disney culture is hardly condemnable, but we should be able to separate those beautiful blue topaz cartoon elephants from those industrial projects where blue poison arrow frogs are made to mate with dwarf cow elephants, weighing only two tonnes (and if they develop their propensity to leapfrog, things can get tricky).

There is one more aspect to take into consideration. Genetics has great positive potential, a technique able to achieve remarkable results and to get rid of that wild DIY (Oh boy! I couldn’t agree more) that humans have practiced for millennia. Corn ears – as fossil evidence shows – were three centimetres long. And how many of us know that the dachshund, the greyhound, the Bergamasco Shepherd Dog and the St. Bernard are not different species but breeds, more or less invented by man from a wolf? But clearly and understandably if genetics moves into the market of living gadgets, suspicions will rise. 

Lastly, there is a technical criticism of micropigs. Although smaller, they are still pigs. We all know that hogs’ dirty nature is a made-up story. Over the centuries they have always been fed rubbish, have kept them in the mud for convenience and he/she have put up with it patiently, despite their intelligence that allows them to appreciate – you bet – properly prepared mash. But pigs are notoriously active animals with their trotters and snouts, and a powerful yet cluttered set of teeth. Pigs have got an inquisitive nature. In other words, the 15 kg hog, the little Bama – not yet marketed by BGI laboratories – if kept in a flat, could damage furniture, wires, hanging clothes, shoes, plants, preventing any tradition, starting from the Christmas tree. We all know how the fashionable little bunnies, with their passion for wires, ended up. Nothing compared to the mini-Bama potential. As a consequence, lots of piglets could end up being abandoned here and there. Perhaps it would be a good idea if Renewable Matter started to come up with ideas on how to “recycle” these micropigs.