Tucked away in a University of Missouri research building, a family of pigs is kept upright and mostly happy by a handful of researchers. Two new litters recently joined the assembly of pudgy, snorting, pink piglets.
While they look like an ordinary collection of pigs one might find in hog barns all over the country, these animals are special. They’re genetically engineered, and they are part of a new crop of GE animals with technology that could be coming soon to the food on your dinner plate.
A team of researchers from the University of Missouri and Kansas State University developed the pigs, a new breed that is resistant to an incurable disease that plagues hogs barns. Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome (PRSS) can spread rapidly through swine populations and often forces hog farmers to euthanize whole barns at a time.
The research team published their findings as a commentary in the journal Nature Biotechnology in December 2015. Research was partially funded by the company that ultimately bought the rights to the technology.
“[PRSS] is a devastating disease,” said Kristin Whitworth, a research scientist at the University of Missouri who worked on the project. “It causes persistent infection. It causes abortions in pigs so they lose their litter. It causes a lot of coughing and the pigs get very sick.”
Once the virus enters a pig, it spreads with the help of a protein. Whitworth and her team genetically edited the gene that makes this protein, effectively removing it.
“Once that molecule is no longer present, then the virus could not only not get inside the macrophages, but could not spread from pig to pig,” Whitworth said.
This story comes from our partners at Harvest Public Media, a reporting collaboration focused on issues of food, fuel and agriculture based at KCUR in Kansas City.