Cutting-edge research is being done at the National Taiwan University's aging pigpen that could one day lead to a more environmentally friendly pig and even yield insights to fighting incurable diseases, scientists say.
"I don't let foreign guests see the campus pigpen because it is so decrepit," Wu Shinn-chih (吳信志), assistant professor at the university and researcher in its Institute of Animal Science and Technology, said yesterday at a press conference held by the National Science Council.
Although he might try to hide his pigpen, Wu does not hide his research, which involves inserting genes from jellyfish, microbes and cows into pig embryos to create pigs with special effects.
"We're not the first to make a pig that glows in the dark, but our pig is the first that glows all over, inside and out," said Wu's mentor, Winston Cheng (鄭登貴), a professor in the same department.
"We hope that the glow-in-the-dark properties will help scientists working with gene therapy track the action of cells once they are injected into an experimental subject," Cheng said.
"When I told my father I was going to university to learn how to raise pigs, he was so angry with me," Cheng recalled, "He told me `you don't need to go to school to learn that!'"
Cheng said he has been working with pigs all his life.
His father was a small-scale pig-keeper who sent Cheng out on a bicycle to fetch a stud boar when their sows need to be serviced. Later at the university, he worked in the country's pilot artificial insemination program, "milking" 30 boars a day. Since 1990 he has manipulated porcine genes directly.
The university now has a herd of 30 pigs that carry the glow-in-the-dark gene, which was isolated from a jellyfish.
One project involves inserting genes from cows and certain microbes to create pigs that can digest cellulose and organic phosphates.
"Not only will they be cheaper to keep, raising these pigs will have less of an impact on the environment," Wu said. "They can get nutrition from food that is less energy-intensive to produce such as grass."
"They will also be able to get all the phosphates they need from vegetable matter, which means we no longer have to put additional phosphate into their feed. This means less polluting droppings," he said.
Even if only a handful of the school's pigs can digest cellulose and organic phosphates at present, Wu is optimistic that in "less than three years' time" the reeresearchearch team will have developed a functional "environmentally friendly pig."
However, there will still be hurdles to overcome.
"All the hard work would account for nothing if it [the modified pig] is not approved by the Department of Health," he said.
At a seperate setting, Hsieh Ting-hung (謝定宏), deputy director of the health department's Food Safety Bureau, said: "We have to be careful to ensure that a genetically modified [GM] plant or animal is completely stable and not going to be either deleterious to those who eat it or affect gene pools out in the wild."
Only 10 GM foods -- all plant-based like corns or soybeans -- are currently allowed to be sold in the country.
"Their approval came after years of research abroad proving their safety," Hsieh said. "Our indigenous researchers will have to prove that their products are safe in a similar manner."
However, the former head of the Taiwan Environmental Protection Union, Chen Jiau-hua (陳椒華), said the procedures vetting the safety of GM foods are not strict enough.