From giant pumpkins to pets: Genetic engineering is there

Pumpkin_redbkgrd_blogWill your future dog be a genetically modified “micropig?” Will giant pumpkins become the norm this time of year? Some are asking these questions as the use of genetic engineering is making headlines around the world regarding everything from the foods we grow and eat, to the future of our household pets.

For example, the Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI) — renowned for its breakthroughs in sequencing the human genome — is ready to bring its genetically modified micropigs to the public as pets, a recent article states. These animals were originally produced for researching gut bacteria and stem cells, but plans to sell the tiny pigs as pets are already being developed.

Like all GMOs, the gene-edited pigs would eventually be subject to regulation, but current guidelines on genetically modified pets are unclear or nonexistent, the article states. This troubles one researcher at New York University School of Medicine.

“Obviously, this has to be regulated,” Yusuff Abdu said in the article. “You can’t let lab-engineered animals out into the public. There is a high chance they could get into the wild and offset an ecosystem if they happen to have an advantageous trait. Lab rats and mice are kept out of pet stores for a reason.”

To engineer the pigs, the researchers started with diminutive Bama pigs and used gene editing to make them even smaller. Now, at roughly 30 pounds, the mini pigs grow to be about the same size as medium-sized dogs and according to the article, future pet owners may also be able to customize their micropig’s coat color and pattern through further gene editing.

While some scientists agree that using the pigs for research is a valid use for gene editing — and, realistically, an inevitable one — others are not sure whether it’s the best application for genomics research right now and are even more unsure of their place as a household pet.

“It’s just way too early to hand over the pigs to the general public,” Adbu said in the article. “The scientists should at least study the pigs for a couple more generations before handing them over to pet owners.”

Less controversial, is the genomics involved in creating North America’s heaviest pumpkin to date. Weighing in at 2,145 pounds and known as Cucurbita Maxima Brobdingnag, this pumpkin is the second greatest pumpkin the world, trailing only Beni Meier of Switzerland, which tipped the scales at 2,378 pounds in 2014.

As stated in a recent article, the most remarkable thing about these overachieving gourds is that their size is not singular: The weight of the massive pumpkin growth has been linear over the past few decades, according to an analysis by University of Wisconsin-Madison horticulturalists.

So, when will they hit a critical mass? According to the article, researchers are unsure. Through the use of a combination of genetics and better growing techniques, growers are able to extend a pumpkin’s growing season, thus adding more water, more nutrients, and more sunlight; all factors that add to the growth of the pumpkins.

While perfect growing conditions do help, they don’t seal a pumpkin’s fate, one farmer explains in the article. “Do not underestimate the power of human breeding to produce unnatural results,” he added.

What the pumpkins really ‘wants’ to do is produce seeds and this can allow the pumpkins to bulk up by two-pounds an hour which can signal the pumpkin to split open and spread its seeds, he added. If it was only environmental factors, you would see the giant pumpkins coming from the same area every year, which is not the case.

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