Tag Archives: pigs

Scientists taught pigs to use a joystick

Credit: Pixabay.

Although they lack opposable thumbs, clever pigs were trained by scientists to use a joystick with their snouts. Angry Birds, watch out!

Pigs are some of the smartest mammals out there. They know which people are nice to them and which ones aren’t, and can also distinguish between pigs they know and pigs that are just strangers. In a 2017 study published in the International Journal of Comparative Psychology, researchers found that pigs are up to par with dogs and chimpanzees, in terms of their mental and social abilities.

And, like chimps, pigs are also capable of using tools. Visayan warty pigs, an endangered species native to the Philippines, have been documented digging nests using bark held in their mouth.

Then there’s Pigcasso, a crafty hog rescued from a South African farm, who was trained by her rescuer to make paintings. She’s actually quite the accomplished artist, having sold ten full paintings and even had her own exhibition.

It’s then not that surprising to learn that pigs may also be gamers. Researchers at Purdue University in Indiana trained four pigs to manipulate a joystick with their snouts in order to control a cursor on a computer screen. After they learned how to use the joystick (with a bit of help from tasty treats), the pigs had to play a video game in which they had to use their new joystick skills to maneuver a cursor until it collided with one of four wall-like structures. When the cursor intersected with the structure on the computer screen, the game made a beeping victory sound and pigs received a treat.

“That the pigs achieved the level of success they did on a task that was significantly outside their normal frame of reference is in itself remarkable, and indicative of their behavioural and cognitive flexibility,” the researchers wrote in their study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

One of the study participants operating a snout-joystick. Credit: Frontiers in Psychology.

However, the pigs didn’t perform nearly as well as non-human primates such as rhesus monkeys, which the researchers pinned to pigs’ far-sightedness and limited dexterity. Using touch screens rather than joysticks might level the dexterity playing field, allowing a more robust comparison between the cognitive abilities of pigs and monkeys.

Nevertheless, studies such as these challenge our conventional notions and stereotypes surrounding animal intelligence. Humans tend to use intelligence to draw the line between what creatures are worthy of their moral consideration, for instance. Objectively speaking, dogs and pigs seem to share many emotional and mental characteristics. It just so happens that one was selected to keep us company while the other was bred to fill our plates.

Chinese researchers find new swine flu strain in pigs. But slim chances of a new pandemic

With the number of positive cases from COVID-19 still growing, a group of Chinese researchers has discovered a new type of swine flu that can infect humans and has the potential to cause a future pandemic. But the virus doesn’t pose an immediate global health threat.

Credit Flickr

The virus, known as “G4 EA H1N1”, is genetically descended from the H1N1 swine flu that caused a pandemic in 2009. G4 shows “all the essential hallmarks of a candidate pandemic virus,” said the authors of the study. Nevertheless, Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University, warned the public not to “freak out.”

“Our understanding of what is a potential pandemic influenza strain is limited” she posted on Twitter. “Sure, this virus meets a lot of the basic criteria but it’s not for sure going to cause a hypothetical 2020 flu pandemic, or even be a dominant strain in humans.”

On Tuesday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, White House coronavirus advisor, said that the G4 virus shares characteristics of the 2009 H1N1 virus and 1918 pandemic flu.

“In other words, when you get a brand new virus that turns out to be a pandemic virus it’s either due to mutations and/or the reassortment or exchanges of genes,” he told lawmakers. “And they’re seeing virus in swine, in pigs now, that have characteristics of the 2009 H1N1, of the original 1918, which many of our flu viruses have remnants of that in it, as well as segments from other hosts, like swine.”

Researchers from Shandong Agricultural University and the Chinese National Influenza Center discovered the virus as part of a pig surveillance program from 2011 to 2018. They collected more than 30,000 nasal swabs from pigs in slaughterhouses and veterinary teaching hospitals across 10 Chinese provinces.

They identified 179 swine influenza viruses from the samples, but not all represented a concern. Some only showed up one year or eventually declined to nonthreatening levels. But that wasn’t the case of the G4 virus, which kept showing up year after year, and even increasingly after 2016.

Additional tests indicated that the G4 virus can infect humans by binding to our cells and receptors, and it can replicate quickly inside our airway cells. And though G4 holds H1N1 genes, people who have received seasonal flu vaccines won’t have any immunity.

The G4 virus already appears to have infected humans in China, the researchers indicated. In Hebei and Shandong provinces, both places with high pig numbers, more than 10% of swine workers on pig farms and 4.4% of the general population tested positive in a survey from 2016 to 2018.

There is no evidence yet that G4 could spread from person to person, which perhaps is the most promising sign so far, said Carl Bergstrom, a professor of biology at the University of Washington. “This is not a new virus; it’s been very common in pigs since 2016,” he tweeted. “There’s no evidence that G4 is circulating in humans.”

Nevertheless, the researchers warned in the study that the virus was on the rise among pig populations, and could “pose a serious threat to human health” if not carefully monitored. Transmission of the virus from pig to human could “lead to severe infection and even death,” said the study, which called for greater control of the virus’ spread within pig populations.

Back in 2009, the H1N1 swine flu pandemic killed an estimated 151,700 to 575,400 people globally. In the aftermath, authorities and scientists stepped up surveillance of pig populations to watch for viruses with “pandemic potential.”

“Pig farming is a massive industry in China and pigs can be important hosts from which novel influenza viruses may emerge,” James Wood, Head of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Cambridge, told CNN. He said the study was a “salutary reminder that we are constantly at risk of a new emergence of zoonotic pathogens and that farmed animals, with which humans have greater contact than with wildlife, may act as the source for important pandemic viruses.”

The new study comes as the world still deals with the COVID-19 pandemic, which has now infected more than 10.3 million people globally and caused more than 505,000 deaths, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

“It’s something that still is in the stage of examination,” Fauci said, referring to the dangers of G4. It’s not “an immediate threat where you’re seeing infections, but it’s something we need to keep our eye on, just the way we did in 2009 with the emergence of the swine flu.”

The study was published in the journal PNAS.

Livestock-MRSA found in British-sourced pork at Asda and Sainsbury’s

British-grown pork livestock has been tested positive for livestock associated MRSA, the Guardian reports. The tests were carried out by Dr Mark Holmes, director of studies in clinical veterinary medicine at Churchill College, Cambridge University, and commissioned by the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics, founded by the Soil Association, Compassion in World Farming and Sustain.

Image credits Tanakawho / Flickr.

Out of a sample of 97 UK-grown-pork products purchased from British supermarkets, three items — sourced from Asda and Sainsbury’s — were contaminated with MRSA CC398, a livestock strain of the superbug, the publication reports. Working with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ), the Guardian has identified the most likely source of the infection in import-legislature loopholes. Through these, pigs from countries where the bacteria is rampant, such as Denmark, have been imported to the UK without proper precautions.

And that’s really bad news.

While MRSA CC398 isn’t as harmful to us as the human-specific strains, it’s still a potentially deadly bacteria that can resist almost everything we can throw at it. Research has found that combining three previously-efficient drugs together can serve as a sort of stop-gap measure against the bacteria; there’s also a thousand year-old salve that’s shown some potential agains MRSA, and Canadian clay. And that’s it.

About 300 people die each year as result of MRSA infection in England and Wales alone, and the bug seriously threatens patients with weakened immune systems.

“MRSA infections kill 11,000 people each year in the United States, and the pathogen is considered one of the world’s worst drug-resistant microbes,” said Gautam Dantas, PhD, an associate professor of pathology and immunology at the Washington University School of Medicine, unaffiliated with the publication.

Still, six cases of MRSA CC398 death have been confirmed in Denmark so far, but there are probably a lot more, the Guardian reports. Animals can catch the bacteria from infected pigs, and people can contract it from eating infected meat or from working with infected animals. Thoroughly cooking it should destroy the germs, but a small risk remains.

The publication warns that UK pigs might be in for the same fate as Denmark’s, where MRSA CC389 spread over a decade ago and now afflicts two-thirds of farms. It’s a major health issue for the country, with some 12,000 people believed to have contracted it — and there are no screening programs set in place for danish pigs.

“If we don’t have tight infection control and we don’t try to control the movement of live animals, infection can spread. The British are up in arms about the movement of people, but the EU also has a large movement of animals,” said Prof Tim Lang from the Food Policy at City University, London.

“We need biosecurity, we need to tighten up this livestock movement. You may get cheap meat, but in the long term it’s going to add to your public health problems.”

The real issue here, just like with human-specific MRSA, is the drug resistance part. What most people don’t understand is that it’s not limited to humans — it’s happening in agriculture, too. The rise of the CC398 strain can in part be attributed to an overuse of antibiotics in factory farming, where cramped and dirty conditions allows disease to flourish. Farmers are left with little choice but feed their livestock huge amounts of antibiotics, promoting the rise of drug resistance at a much higher rate than those seen in humans. And if the bacteria gains a foothold in the UK (and there’s not much we can do to spot it apart from screenings) our drugs won’t be able to destroy it. So even such a low number of cases is worrying.

Where’s it coming from?

The Guardian reports that last year, out of 100 samples of pork from UK supermarkets, nine were found to contain MRSA. One of these was sourced from an Irish farm, and the others from pigs in Denmark. The findings marked the first confirmed occurrence of the superbug in the UK.

Image credits Tim Geers / Flickr.

While it’s impossible to determine if the meat tested now comes from UK or imported pigs, it does show that the bacteria is present in UK farms. Imports are likely the original source of the infection, The Guardian adds. At least one Danish farm has been found to be a regular supplier of importer pigs to the UK even if their pigs were contaminated with MRSA in 2014, the BIJ reported. The company, Breeding Centre Rønshauge A/S, refused to say how many pigs it had exported to the UK and whether they could have been contaminated. But official export figures show that the company supplied 41 pigs to the UK in July this year, 65 in 2013 and 16 in 2012. The UK government does not screen for the infection in imported animals, citing a low risk of serious illness.

“It is extremely worrying to find LA [livestock-associated]-MRSA in British-produced pork,” said Emma Rose, from the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics.

“Scientists are now warning that the extensive MRSA reservoir in animals could ultimately lead to a pandemic spread in the human population. LA-MRSA is able to cause serious and potentially fatal infections in humans, and as the bacteria is resistant to antibiotics, it is extremely difficult to treat. What’s more, even more dangerous variations are emerging as the superbug evolves.”

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said that LA-MRSA “is not the same as MRSA strains that can cause healthcare-associated infections” if the meat isn’t properly cooked, and the risk to people is “low”. Defra and the National Pig Association recommend that all pigs imported to Britain be screened for the bacteria.

“The government is reviewing options for surveillance, which will be proportionate to the very low health risk posed by livestock-associated MRSA.”

When animals are imported, they’re screened for multiple diseases, but the one for CC398 is voluntary. So there’s no way to know how many infected pigs there are in UK right now. There have been two confirmed cases, one in Northern Ireland and one in eastern England, but without any systematic tests carried out in farms, all we’re left with are extremely rough estimations. The publication says that this and other health concerns related to UK meat come down to pressure towards factory farms producing the cheapest possible meat.

If you want to learn how well a pig is doing, listen to its grunts

Credit: Flickr user A. Sparrow

One of the most familiar livestock animals seems to signal information about their personalities, but also wellbeing, by grunting.

Oink, oink

The findings were reported by researchers at University of Lincoln and Queens University Belfast, who studied piglets and noticed that the rate of a pig’s vocalizations and the quality of its living conditions were linked.

“Understanding how the vocalizations of pigs’ relate to their personality will also help animal behaviorists and welfare experts have a clearer picture of the impact those personalities have on communication, and thus its role in the evolution of social behavior and group dynamics in social species,” said Mary Friel, a PhD student at Queen’s University Belfast, lead author of the study published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

Friel and her colleagues got hold of 72 male and female juvenile pigs and split them into two different types of pens. One held the young pigs in luxurious conditions with plenty of space to move about and straw bedding. The other pen was a lot duller — a compact enclosure with a concrete floor. Not very posh, even for a British pig (both pens adhered to UK animal welfare regulations, the researchers were quick to note).

Each pig spent three minutes in isolation, then five in either of the two pens with a novel object they had not encountered before: either a large white bucket or an orange traffic cone.

Meanwhile, researchers studied the pigs’ behaviour and counted the frequency of their grunts. They also repeated the experiment weeks later to make sure what they were seeing weren’t some quirks and the behaviour was repeatable.

Pigs that showed more proactive personalities made grunts far more frequently than reactive pigs. Male pigs who were kept in poorer conditions also made fewer grunts than those pigs who ‘had the life’. There was no such difference found among females, suggesting male pigs are more susceptible to living conditions.

“A pig uses acoustic signals in a variety of ways; maintaining contact with other group members while foraging, parent-offspring communication, or to signal if they are distressed,” said Dr. Lisa Collins, a specialist in animal health, behavior and welfare epidemiology in the Lincoln School of Life Sciences. “The sounds they make convey a wide range of information such as the emotional, motivational and physiological state of the animal. For example, squeals are produced when pigs feel fear, and may be either alerting others to their situation or offering assurance.”

These latest findings show just how complex these animals are, which some claim are smarter than dogs or dolphins.

Genetically-altered pigs to become humanity’s source for “spare” organs

Among all the species with which we share the animal kingdom, pigs are the ones whose organs are best suited for transplant in human bodies — they are approximately the same size as our organs and have similar structures, making reconnecting blood vessels much easier. Pigs tend to have large litters and reproduce quickly, making them a very large, very accessible source of “spare parts.”

Never too early to start training that liver.
Image via imgur

So far so good, but why aren’t we all running around with an extra pig spleen or a couple of bonus pig kidneys cleaning our blood? Well, there is a itty bitty hurdle when using pig organs — our bodies freak out when we transplant them. Pig organs are coated with specific sugar molecules that trigger an acute rejection response in human bodies — our antibodies attach themselves to these sugar molecules and destroy the newly transplanted pig organ. Hoping to overcome this problem, researchers are working to create pigs that lack the gene that serves as a template for these sugars.

There are two research efforts being poured into this project currently — Randall Prather at the University of Missouri in Columbia created four cloned piglets from which one had one copy of the sugar-producing gene inactivated (each organisms has two copies of each gene, one from the maternal and one from the paternal side.) The piglets were born in September and October, and a description of Prather’s work was published in the journal Science. The other, a team working for PPL Therapeutics PLC of Scotland, the company that played a part in cloning Dolly the sheep, also announced the birth of a litter of five cloned piglets on December 25th, who’ve also had a copy of the gene inactivated.

The next step involves selectively breeding the pigs, to produce animals lacking both copies of the gene. Theoretically, the organs of these modified pigs could be transplanted into humans without the body rejecting the foreign tissue.

The new results are a significant advance over many other attempts at genetic modification in animals because in both of the studies, the scientists were able to modify—in this case, “knock out”—a gene at a specific location. Although genes from other organisms have been inserted into the genomes of sheep, cattle, and pigs, scientists have had little control over where on a chromosome the new gene is incorporated.

“This is the first time a specific genetic modification has been made in the pig,” said Prather.

Prather’s team, made up of fellows of the University of Missouri and colleagues at the Immerge BioTherapeutics Inc. in Charlestown, Massachusetts, worked directly on fetal pig cells, altering their genetic make-up. These cells were used to grow 3,000 embryo clones that were implanted into 28 surrogate sows, with only seven piglets born, three of which died later.

What started five years ago with the cloning of Dolly, the expectation of creating identical, genetically-controlled organs for transplant into humans, only got one step closer to reality with the cloning of these piglets.

But it’s not all roses — one concern that has dampened the prospects of xenotransplantation is the possibility of spreading viruses from one species to another. Porcine endogenous retrovirus (PERV), for example, is part of a pig’s natural genetic makeup and does not cause any disease in the animal. There is no guarantee, however, that PERV would be harmless in humans.

Still, xenotransplantation might soon become a common practice, as there is an enormous demand for organ transplants that human donors alone will never be able to fill.

The swine flu paaanic [pics, slightly NSFW]

Swine flu has been officially declared a pandemic, and although it’s not one of the deadliest by any standards, it can be deadly (just like the average flu can). However, despite the fact that the deaths/infected ratio is around 0.1%, people are going absolutely crazy about it, blowing everything out of proportions. Here are some examples of swine flu related panic, protests against it, and, well, other stuff.

weds

Til swine flu do us part

They'll probably be just like the first pic in a year or two

They'll probably be just like the first pic in a year or two

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protest-2

Diana, the goddess of hunt

Diana, the goddess of hunt

swine-flu-orlando

doggy

pooh

The cure

The cure