Scientists at the University of Missouri in Columbia have successfully crossed a pig with a jellyfish (well, sort of), creating a litter of piglets with Day-Glo snouts and hooves that gleam yellow under ultraviolet light. As the pigs, which were born in March, age, other body parts might also become incandescent.
This creation was funded with more than $500,000 from the National Institutes of Health. The average taxpayer might wonder at the use for such beasts. Fluorescent footballs, perhaps? Or maybe these snouts will light a piggy path to truffles? Or does the ham-handed ghost of Dr. Seuss lurk in the Mizzou genetics lab, bent on greening the glow a bit before expanding the technology to laying hens?
In fact, the glowing pigs have no purpose other than enlightening researchers as to what might be possible in genetic engineering. Scientists are much more interested in altering pigs' genes so that the porkers are born with organs -- or cells that produce disease-fighting chemicals -- suitable for human transplant.
"This is a large step because it means it's possible to change the genetic makeup of cells," says Randy Prather, the animal science professor who oversaw the project.
Although pig organs are similar to humans', scientists can't simply take, say, a porcine kidney and drop it into a little boy. The genetic configuration of the cells in that kidney wouldn't match the boy's DNA, and the swine organ would be rejected. And that's bad for the boy.
Prather says the day won't come soon when sows grunt out piglets full of transplantable human parts. "I don't have a crystal ball," he says. "This is really just the first step. We've got to make the specific genetic modifications, and there's probably got to be more than one that needs to be made. And then it has to go through FDA approval, and that can take years."
Of course, the whole idea seems to defy common sense, and many researchers fear the technology will transfer genetic and viral diseases from pigs to the human population.
Meanwhile, Prather has four little piggies with nostrils the color of tennis balls. "We'll just continue to grow them," Prather says. "If there is an interest in this specific genetic modification in the biomedical community, we'll go ahead and provide those genetics to other people so that they can use them."
So far there are no takers -- not even the folks at the Tenderloin Grill ("Best Pig Snoot Sandwich," October 18). Richard, the grill's owner, doubts that glowing snout sandwiches would catch on as a treat for the kiddies. "Honestly, I don't even know how we sell the ones that we do," he says.