Gene-edited piglets
Gene-edited piglets had less body fat Laura Dow, The Roslin Institute

Chinese scientists have created 12 genetically modified piglets with around 24% less fat than normal, according to a new study.

The research, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), describes how scientists edited the genes of pigs using a technique known as CRISPR, in order to produce offspring which were better able to regulate their body temperatures.

The discovery could potentially save the pork industry millions of dollars while producing healthier meat. Currently, pig farmers spend large amounts of money on heating and extra feed to keep the animals warm in winter.

The genetically modified animals were more adept at controlling their body temperature by burning fat, meaning they would suffer less in cold weather and be less likely to die.

"This is a paper that is technologically quite important," R. Michael Roberts, who edited the study for the journal, told NPR. "It demonstrates a way that you can improve the welfare of animals at the same as also improving the product from those animals — the meat."

The researchers think the meat would be much leaner while the taste would be unaffected, although this has not yet been tested.

Whether consumers will see genetically modified meat on their plates though, remains to be seen. In the US, the FDA approved genetically modified salmon for consumption in 2015, however, this only came after decades of intense opposition from environmental and food safety groups.

CRISPR is a gene editing technique which allows scientists to make changes to DNA with great precision, opening up a whole world of possibilities.

For the recent study, the researchers used CRISPR to implant a gene taken from a mouse – known as UPC1 – into pig cells. UPC1 is found in most mammals and helps with the regulation of body temperature, although pigs lack the gene.

The scientists then used the edited pig cells to create more than 2,500 cloned pig embryos. These were then implanted into 13 female pigs, three of which became pregnant, producing the 12 male piglets.

The genetically modified piglets were much better at regulating their body temperature and seemed perfectly healthy, according to tests conducted by the researchers.