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Pigs in the Limelight

Potbellied Pigs: What's the Big Deal?

by Sammy Swine

Potbellied pigs have a sway back, large "pot belly" stomach, and, when compared to other breeds of pigs, relatively short shouts. They have small, rounded, pricked ears, straight tails and often have wrinkled faces. Potbellied pigs are black, white, black with white markings, white with black markings, or silver. Adults have coarse, dense bristles and most have a "mane" that runs along the top of the neck and topline. Those bristles can be raised or lowered based on the pigs emotional state (upright bristles does not always indicate aggressive feelings).

Potbellied pigs have fine bones relative to their size. Male potbellied pigs grow tusks even if neutered. Females do too, but theirs are much smaller. Ancestors of the potbellied pig were first domesticated in South China thousands of years ago.

The Vietnamese Potbellied Pig was first imported to Canada in 1985. These pigs are from the Red River delta area and are mostly black with wrinkled, dished faces and small ears. Known as the "small pig" the adults are about 200 pounds. But if you feed them too much, you know what happens? (Click on the pig to find out...)

Pigs are highly intelligent, social and affectionate herd animals. They have been called sly and devious and have been compared to a 2 or 3 year old child in emotional maturity. They tend to get bored very easy. Confined to a house, they may entertain themselves by eating wallpaper, rooting up linoleum and tipping over tables. Thus, they should always have access to the outdoors. They are generally better behaved if raised with other pigs.

Pigs eat fruit, vegetables, grains and meat. They also have quite a sweet tooth. They use their snouts to "root" up tasty roots and shoots. When grasses and other leafy greens such as clover, dandelions, chickweed and alfalfa are available they spend lots of time grazing.

Pigs Cloned for Organ Transplants

by Anita Manning

Two competing groups of scientists have genetically altered and cloned pigs they hope can one day be used to help fill a desperate need for organ donors.

The bioengineered pigs lack one of a pair of genes that trigger rejection of transplanted tissue in organ recipients.

It's a "very important development" that could resolve a major problem in cross-species transplantation, says Harvard surgeon David Sachs, director of the Transplantation Biology Research Center at Massachusetts General Hospital. The next step, he says, is to breed the pigs without the second copy of the gene, a process that could take months.

Pigs are considered good candidates as organ donors because their organs are similar in size and structure to those of humans, offering hope for an unlimited supply of hearts, kidneys and other organs for transplant.

Research to prevent rejection of transplanted tissues has extended the survival of organs in cross-species transplants from minutes to months, says Sachs, who was not involved in the research reported this week. Scientists can block the immune system's attack on foreign tissue, he says, but it always resurges, taking aim at a specific target on the pig cells. That target is created by the gene that now has been knocked out of the high-tech pigs.

More than 71,000 patients are awaiting organ transplants in the USA, donor agencies say. "The reason we're all so committed to this is that patients are dying every day because they can't get transplants," Sachs says.

The pigs were developed by researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia working with Immerge BioTherapeutics of Charlestown, Massachusetts, and another group of researchers at PPL Therapeutics in Blacksburg, Virginia. The development may not resolve all problems involving animal-to-human organ transplantation, says Randall Prather of the University of Missouri, co-author of a report in today's Science on the birth of four cloned pigs in September and October. "But we've shown we can do the specific genetic change," he says, so if others are needed, "we can do it."

PPL Therapeutics, which announced Wednesday the Christmas births of five cloned piglets, says it expects that tests involving transplants from pigs to humans could begin in four years.