ATHENS, Ohio — At a biotechnology center near this college town, two unusual creatures were born several weeks ago. The latest products of a company known as Embryogen, the creatures might provide the grist for an interesting theological debate. Namely, what do you call these fat, squirming babies? They look suspiciously porcine and, to be sure, the two newborns walk like pigs, squeal like pigs, roll around and get filthy like pigs.
As a matter of fact, they are pigs--but pigs like God never made. Using the latest biological engineering, scientists have instilled the cells of each creature with a gene from cattle, and the babies will grow into adults that are different from any other pigs that have ever lived.
To a layman, the differences will be subtle. When grown, the pigs will look and behave more or less the same as others of their breed. But Embryogen hopes that the cattle genes will produce metabolic changes in the pigs that the pork industry has been looking for: animals with more meat and less fat.
Previous experiments with genetic engineering of pigs have proven only partially successful. The leaner pigs also revealed vulnerabilities to a number of crippling diseases, including arthritis and nerve disorders. This time, Embryogen officials hope they have hit the jackpot.
Using new genetic regulators designed to forestall such health problems, the scientists may have come close to inventing the perfect pig. "We are very optimistic," said Steven Holzman, vice president of Embryogen. The final judgment, Holzman said, will be made in three to six months after the young pigs mature into adults.
Embryogen and half a dozen similar companies around the country constitute the forefront of a new industry that is being created by advances in biotechnology. They are attempting, for the first time, to make new forms of animals that will be available commercially to serve man.
Though still in its earliest stage of development, the industry was given a dramatic boost in the spring when the U.S. Patent Office announced that it will consider new animal forms as patentable inventions. Holding an animal patent would give the inventor an exclusive right to sell that particular animal to farmers or others. Before that decision, plants and microorganisms were regarded as patentable items but higher life forms were excluded.
Industry officials say the decision will give companies the economic protection they need to profit from their creations, and will keep the United States competitive with other countries that are also working on new life forms. At present, according to one industry estimate, the total investment in new animal research amounts to only $5 million annually, a minuscule amount compared to the $3 billion being spent on plant and microorganism technology. Nonetheless, plans for the future are ambitious and, if realized, could produce startling results. Some examples:
- Farm animals, especially dairy cows, may be used to produce pharmaceuticals that now must be manufactured synthetically in the laboratory. According to scientists, the cows would be engineered to produce the drugs--insulin, for example--by altering their genetic makeup at the embryo stage of development. One of several organs would produce the pharmaceuticals and excrete it into the milk, where it would be extracted for commercial use.
- Scientists believe they will have the ability to engineer immunity against common diseases into livestock within the next decade. Some diseases can be devastating to farmers, especially chicken growers who sometimes lose thousands of birds in epidemics of Newcastle's disease or avian influenza. Genetic immunity would also allow farmers to forgo the routine use of antibiotics in livestock feed, which is believed to promote drug-resistant strains of viruses and bacteria.
- Conversely, vulnerability to some human diseases could be built into laboratory animals, allowing researchers to test the effects of new drugs. Currently there are virtually no test animals available for some major diseases--such as AIDS, which strikes only man and chimpanzees. One company is attempting to develop a mouse that would contract AIDS or an AIDS-like disease.
- Livestock could be bred to tolerate extreme climatic conditions. These tolerances would allow farm animals to be raised in tropical regions of Africa or Asian tundra areas that are very hot, very cold, or very dry. Such areas, usually with primitive cultures, have little or no domestic livestock.