The Ham-maid's Tale: Swines, Sows and Sex in the CRISPR Age

By Leo Bear-McGuinness on at

Picture the scene. It’s twilight and an idyllic country farm is framed in the sunset. Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On laps down from the farmer’s open window into the pig sty. Coursing through the slurry, Gaye’s soulful tones work their magic. Coquettish oinks are exchanged, snouts are squeezed, and slowly, the pigs pair off. Except Kevin, the runt of the litter. But despite being covered snout to tail in spots and voted most likely to be used for hot dog meat at school, he still dreams of being a father. Like Chad. All the sows love Chad. Big as a boar and just as hairy, he’s Farmer Jones’ prized sire. And there he is, brazenly flirting with Patricia at the end of the sty. The swine.

But, just as he was about to wallow in his misery (among other matter), Kevin notices something. Chad’s nodding at him. And Patricia’s calling him over, too. Is this a practical joke? No, Chad’s retreating – and Patricia’s inviting him into her pen… One pig gestation period later, and Kevin’s pacing up and down the barn, wondering. Can he be the father he never had?

Farmer Jones emerges, a beautiful piglet in hand. But it doesn’t have spots. It’s covered in boar-like hair. Ignoring Kevin, he presents the newborn to Chad, the true father. How’s the possible? Kevin demands. But he doesn’t get an answer. Because two hours later, Kevin’s bacon.

This tragic tale of love, labour and loss might be a fantasy, but thanks to some pioneering porcine research, one pig fathering another’s child is anything but.

“We set out to create male livestock (pigs in this instance) that have intact testis but do not produce semen of their own – they’re surrogate boars,” says Dr Simon Lillico, Core Scientist at The Roslin Institute, University of Edinburgh. Along with researchers from the Washington State University’s Center for Reproductive Biology and other institutions, Lillico helped birth this new field of genetically engineered pig reproduction.

Speaking to Gizmodo UK, he explained that “the idea is then to take a biopsy from the testis of an elite male, expand the spermatagonial stem cell (SSC) population using cell culture then transfer these into the testis of one of our surrogates.”

“Once these cells have established, the surrogate will produce semen with the same genetics as the elite donor – effectively increasing the number of males producing elite semen without having to expand elite breeding herd size.”

In other words, Lillico and his fellow researchers are putting alpha male sperm into beta male balls, so the big guys don’t have to do the work.

And you thought Tinder was lazy.

The method is a marked improvement on the current, human facilitated (yes, really) way of breeding pigs, which usually involves a mountable bench, female pig pheromones and a glove. They don’t call them farmhands for nothing, you know…

While this technique has produced results in the past, thanks to its clumsy and time-consuming nature, desirable traits don’t manifest for decades.

Lillico and his international colleagues are looking to vastly reduce that time with their more scientific method – one that depends upon one of the great genetic advancements of the last decade: CRISPR. These clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats form a powerful tool in the right (or wrong) geneticist’s hands. In the last few years alone, CRISPR methods have been used to produce biofuel, stop malaria and, controversially, birth the first genetically altered human baby.

But while the scientific world still reels from that great leap, the proxy paternity pig project perseveres.

Using CRISPR techniques, the international team ‘knock out’ the genes that code for sperm production in young, ‘inferior males’. Once these now sterile pigs mature, the researchers inject them with the genetic material of ‘superior males’, which possess desirable traits such as accelerated growth and disease resistance. The team hope this technique will allow hundreds of modified pigs to ‘do the work’ of one prized male, thereby spreading his enviable traits among the population without him having to lift a trotter.

“The idea behind the work relates to agriculture, specifically livestock species where semen from elite animals has high value,” adds Lillico. “Pigs and cattle fit into this category, as breeding companies invest significant resources into improving beef, milk and pork through genomic selection strategies and often sell high quality semen as part of their businesses.

“But one limitation of this business model is that there are a limited number of elite sires maintained in highly bio-secure environments, and therefore a limited quantity of elite semen.”

While many might think this reproductive dictatorship reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale if it starred Pepper Pig, the scientists instead see their work preventing a dystopia, rather than creating one.

After all, an estimated 815 million people, or 10.7% of the world’s population, suffer from chronic undernourishment. And as the global population is on track to reach 8.6 billion by 2030, many researchers are looking for radical new ways to better distribute the food chain.

“We have to figure out how to make animals produce a product – whether that’s meat or milk – at today’s nutritional standards that we all want, with less input,” explains Jon Oatley, director of Washington State University’s Center for Reproductive Biology, one of the main partners in the germline pig project.

“The genetics of that animal dictate how well it can convert the inputs, like water or food or antibiotics, to a measurable output, which is meat, milk, fiber – that kind of thing,” he told The Spokesman Review.

But while those involved may have noble intentions, unfortunately, a good deal of the general public still treat genetic engineering with the same affection they’d give Frankenstein’s warts. Even though each pig was augmented back when they were a single cell and are otherwise no different from any other four-legged snout.

“I think the fear factor comes in with people that just don’t understand, so I believe that it really comes down to education,” Oatley says.

“When the general public is developing opinions about genetically engineered foods, they’re doing it with a full stomach. If you went and talked to somebody who has an empty stomach, they have a very different perspective.”

For now, the project is still at the proof-of-concept stage, so it may be some time before the world’s hungry are dining on dishes with daddy issues. But while we wait, perhaps it’s fitting to make a tribute to the pigs that will help birth this brave new world.

At one point in Atwood’s seminal novel, Offred, a fertile woman imprisoned in the misogynistic dystopia of Gilead, finds the message, “Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum” scrawled inside a cupboard. She soon learns that the words are nonsense Latin and somewhat translate to ‘don’t let the bastards grind you down’. In modern times, the phrase has taken on a life of its own and become a feminist rallying cry around the world.

But perhaps these pig Latin words could also comfort the sows and sires that will sow the seed of the new superfood. Screw the genetic engineering naysayers, you’re feeding the world! So don’t let the bastards grind you down! But seeing as they’re the inferior stock to be weeded out of the gene pool, that’s almost certainly what will happen.

Percy Pig, anyone?