Gene-edited Micro-Pigs about to become Pets

Can you recognize where the following paragraph is from?

Hammond was flamboyant, a born showman, and… had an elephant that he carried around with him in a little cage. The elephant was nine inches high and a foot long, and perfectly formed, except his tusks were stunted. Hammond took the elephant with him to fund-raising meetings. Gennaro usually carried it into the room, the cage covered with a little blanket, like a tea cozy, and Hammond would give his usual speech about the prospects for developing what he called “consumer biologicals.” Then, at the dramatic moment, Hammond would whip away the blanket to reveal the elephant. And he would ask for money.

 

The story of Hammond and his miniature elephant (supposedly genetically engineered) appears in the opening pages of the book Jurassic Park. Ever since I read Jurassic Park in my teens, this is the paragraph that got stuck in my mind. After all, ravenous dinosaurs eating people is neat and everything, but having a tiny elephant living in your house, and showing it to your friends every time they drop by? Now that’s priceless – and definitely an idea I could relate to.

As it turns out, this dream is actually coming to fruition nowadays, with a Chinese prestigious institute announcing its intention to sell genetically engineered micro-pigs. Which, I guess, are a good substitute for a micro-elephant… at least for now.

The micro-pigs in question were engineered in a way that disabled their normal production of growth hormones, leading to the creation of a ‘dwarf’ pig. Their original purpose was to be used in medical studies of dwarfism and other metabolic disorders, since pigs are often used as models for human diseases. However, when they were revealed to the public at the Shenzhen International Biotech Leaders Summit in China one week ago, they stole the show.

“We had a bigger crowd than anyone,” said Lars Bolund, who took part in the pigengeering project, in an interview to Scientific American. “People were attached to them. Everyone wanted to hold them.”

Micro-pigs caused an uproar in the Biomedical Summit in China. Image originally from Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog
Micro-pigs caused an uproar in the Biomedical Summit in China. Image originally from Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog

The enthusiasm should not really have been surprising. There’s been a pig-pet craze for the past few decades, which scrupulous breeders have taken advantage of by selling “teacup pigs” – tiny piglets which were supposed to remain small through adulthood. As it turned out, many such piglets grew to weigh 100 – 150 pounds, forcing their owners to give the massive beasts up.

The micro-pigs should be relatively safe to purchase, and quite simply cannot reach a weigh of more than 15 kilograms, or more than the size of a medium-sized dog. That’s in their DNA – the genetic program that instructs their body on its final shape and size. The BGI Chinese institute is planning to sell them at $1,600 – and I won’t be surprised if the first batch will be snatched up within days by the rich and the famous who will be looking for new ways to demonstrate their… well, richness and fame.

But the really interesting question for me is: what will be the next genetically-engineered animal to make it to households as pet?

Dragon to Newt

The first (and possibly easiest to perform) kind of genetic engineering for household pets will be downsizing. As the BGI institute researchers have shown, you just need to disable the production of growth hormones in the animal to do that – a relatively easy task. Which animals will be downsized, then?

Endangered or threatened species will probably not be on the list, since the researchers need a mature female to give birth to the engineered baby-animal. Also, many large mammals have an extremely long pregnancies, which might make the venture unprofitable. So – I’m probably not going to enjoy my micro-elephant or micro-rhinoceros anytime soon.

If I had to bet on the animal of choice, my money would probably be on micro-crocodiles. The Nile crocodile is nowhere near endangered, and the female lays an average of fifty eggs, which hatch in three months. Baby crocodiles are already cute enough that some people will adopt them, with the obvious result of having to face a full-blown crocodile in the bathroom two years later. But what if they’re engineered to never grow any larger? I would probably chip in for a pet like that. A miniature horse or stag – if you just bring them down to the size of a house cat – wouldn’t hurt either.

Will micro-crocodiles be our next pets? Image of a baby crocodile taken from Pinterest - user Jessica Curzon
Will micro-crocodiles be our next pets?
Image of a baby crocodile taken from Pinterest – user Jessica Curzon

Glow in the Dark

“Glow in the dark animals” are already quite common in labs around the world. They’re being used for medical studies, but somehow have never found their way to the consumer market. The answer has a lot to do with the psychology of the consumer, but I would wager a guess that we just don’t like glow-in-the-dark cats or dogs. And why should we? The glow is mostly revealed only under UV light, and in any case – it would just make the animals frightening to behold.

The only case in which glowing animals became a success was with aquarium fish (GloFish) that were the recipients of a jellyfish gene causing them to slow in the dark. Those fish are quite beautiful, but they grow only in the extremely secure and limited environment of the fish tank. Not really interesting, to be honest.

GloFish as our "glow in the dark" pets. Image originally from the GloFish site
GloFish as our “glow in the dark” pets. Image originally from the GloFish site

Cats Just Want to have Fun

Ragdoll cats are known as the most gentle and non-aggressive of all cats. They were bred specifically to be that way, and are a hit among adults and children who love the way cats look – but not the scars they leave on the skin.

Since we are beginning to identify genes that influence behavior and aggression in animals, why not use genetic engineering to bring some really ferocious animals to our houses?

I know that I wrote earlier against the engineering of endangered animals, but just consider: wouldn’t you like a full-sized tiger that is – quite literally – gentler than a kitten? Or how about a fun-loving shark in the swimming pool?

While these are probably extreme examples (you still have to feed these animals with tons of raw meat!), I think we can agree that smaller animals, like a people-loving raccoon, or a truly affectionate snake that likes to cuddle, could be a real hit.

Can We Stop GE-Pets?

By now you’re probably asking yourself if we can stop the technology from coming to fruition and delivering GE-pets to our doorsteps. It is extremely unlikely that the process will stop in any way, because of several reasons –

  • Globalization: if GE-pets are banned in one country, they’ll be engineered in another country like China. When their safety is demonstrated over time, they’ll spread around;
  • Powerful and cheap GE techniques: novel genetic engineering techniques are becoming rapidly cheaper and more powerful, which means that many private companies will soon start dabbling with synthetic biology. Even the venerable Bill Gates recently mentioned that if he were a kid today – he would be hacking biology. Governments will find it increasingly more difficult to stop these new companies from delivering their products to the market.
  • Eventual spread: let’s say you own a micro-pig, and your friend raises her own micro-pig. You like her, she likes you, and your micro-pigs like each other. What do you think will happen next? You could enjoy a litter of micro-pigs within less than a year, which you will give to your neighbors, whether they like them or not. Of course, most GE-pets will also be engineered to be sterile (companies have to protect their business investment, after all), but others will be fertile, and you can be sure that they’ll breed and spread throughout the land.

Conclusion

We are now at the beginning of a fascinating and exciting age: the age of synthetic biology, when animals could be molded according to our wishes. Obviously, we gain an enormous power over nature that way – but is it any different from raising animals in farms and stables? I’m not so sure. I also don’t see much of a danger to bio-diversity in the short-term, since the animals we will engineer for our needs will be hard-pressed to survive in nature (good luck to that micro-crocodile, or cuddling snake when they have to survive outside the house).

I’ll be waiting for my micro-crocodile to arrive sometime in this decade or the next.

And what would you kids like to get for Christmas?

Batman Exists – and His Name Is Bill Gates

Today is Batman Day – the day in which we celebrate Batman’s triumph over evil, again. It seems Batman keeps on saving the world (or Gotham, at least) at least once a year, and yet the baddies just keep on streaming to his doorstep. While frustrating, this fact does not discourage the Bat-fans, who flock to the comics stores to celebrate one of the most renowned heroes of the day.

Sadly, they almost completely ignore the real heroes of our times: people like Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Mark Zuckerberg who have pledged to give at least half of their fortunes to charity, along with more than 135 other billionaires who have signed a similar pledge.

Bill and his wife Melinda alone have pledged over $30 billion to various charities, and have founded the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation which continually gives out grants and monetary assistance to demolish poverty, hunger and disease worldwide. Warren Buffett has pledged a similar amount of $30 billion to the Foundation as well. According to an infographic from 2012, the Gates’ generosity has saved almost six million lives by brining vaccinations and improving healthcare internationally.

So why is it that we view Batman in such a high esteem, while pretty much ignoring Bill, Melinda, Buffett and other billionaires?

To understand the reasons we need to go back in time, and view history in the form of waves, as noted futurist Alvin Toffler have done in his book from the 1980s – The Third Wave.

The Third Wave: a masterpiece about the future, or rather the present of current times, since the book was published in 1980. Highly recommended!
The Third Wave: a masterpiece about the future, or rather the present of current times, since the book was published in 1980. Highly recommended!

A History of Waves

In his (highly recommended) classic, Toffler has described two waves that have swept over humanity and have created new civilizations. The First Wave was the one that replaced hunter-gatherer societies with agricultural ones. The Second Wave was the Industrial Revolution, which has led to standardization and centralization of manufacturing and governance. And the Third Wave, which we are experiencing right now, is leading to the creation of the post-industrial society, in which wealth is measured in information, and not necessarily in physical products (to understand that, consider that Google is making approximately $30 billion just by selling and rerouting information).

The interesting thing about those waves is that while people change their lifestyle, their consciousness and culture remains largely ‘stuck’ in the previous waves. In fact, we all still firmly adhere in our mentality to the era before the agricultural wave (the First Wave), when the heroes and top-guns were the chieftains and the hunters. And what distinguished them? They had big and bulging muscles, and were largely the macho types, competing constantly among themselves over who’s stronger.

In other words, they were largely the archetype of all comics, anime and manga superheroes.

A typical superhero - strong and assumedly fertile. Image originally taken from Progressiveboink
A typical superhero – strong and assumedly fertile.
Image originally taken from Progressiveboink

We see the affection for the big and macho types in many other places. Jared Diamond has described in his masterpiece Collapse, that Australians still view the cowboys and lone farmers with great affection and as the “ideal Australians”. Similarly, a soldier from the Marine Corps is enjoying a far greater prestige than a cyber-hacker, despite the fact that the latter is almost certainly more influential. The same applies to military unmanned aerial vehicles controllers, who are being ridiculed by the ‘real pilots’.

In other words, we are all still mentally fastened to an era that precedes even the First Wave – more than 10,000 years ago. The principles of that time, which are largely in contradiction to the way the world works today, include –

  • Might: Brawn over brains;
  • Materialism: Materials (food, money in your hand) are more important than information (money in your virtual bank account);
  • Wholeness: Individuals and groups are valued by the work they do themselves, while those who outsource labor are considered lazy or money mongers.
  • Cleanliness: Occupations that deal with ‘dirty’ jobs, like cleaning human excrement or handling the garbage bins on the streets, are considered much less prestigious than most other occupations – even though they may be high-earning professions, and certainly important for society wellbeing.

Leaving the Past behind Us

Can we leave our evolutionary history behind us, and move forward to a more progressive future? I believe we can. Our brains may be largely wired in the same way they were 10,000 years ago, but we have a large advantage over nature: our consciousness and ability to essentially rewire our own brain just by thinking and comprehending new ideas.

My friend Yaron Assa demonstrated how we can transcend our old ways of thinking, in a lesson he gave in my course about foresight and forecasting. He showed the audience two lines, and asked them which is longer (you can see the challenge below). Everybody sniggered, and told Yaron that both lines are just as long – and that it’s an old and well-known visual illusion. To which Yaron calmly explained that they have just now proved that human beings can recognize their biases – even ones based on the brain’s wiring and visualization systems – and overlook them, if only they know about them in advance.

The Muller-Lyer optical illusion. Which line is longer - A or B?  Originally from "Us and Them" article
The Muller-Lyer optical illusion. Which line is longer – A or B?
Originally from “Us and Them” article

I believe we can put the past behind us. Not completely, of course, but largely so. We’re already on that path right now. Many of our best comics superheroes turn out into geeks: Hank Pym (Antman) and Bruce Banner (the Hulk) are brilliant scientists, Tony Stark (Ironman) is a super-engineer, Batman is constantly re-engineering his equipment, and so on. So maybe we’re beginning to overcome the idea that brawn overcomes brains.

Are brains starting to become more valued than brawn? Originally from Comicvine
Are brains starting to become more valued than brawn?
Originally from Comicvine

In summary, we can leave some of the past behind us, but before we do that, we have to recognize just how much we cling to it. So while you’re celebrating this Batman Day out there with your capes and gloomy looks, don’t forget the real heroes of our times – the ones who are not macho, who don’t have bulging muscles, and yet like Batman they largely hide behind the scenery and do the dirty work that nobody likes to think about.