These People Want to Genetically Engineer Pink Chickens

The Pink Chicken Project wants to use CRISPR to alter all chickens’ DNA in order to send a message about the health of our environment.

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May 12 2017, 12:00pm

A new website called "the Pink Chicken Project" offers up an intriguing nugget of an idea: what if we turned all chickens on Earth pink?" Yes, you read that right. The creators of the project told Motherboard in an email that they are "a small group of designers and engineers with an interest in biotechnology", and say they want to genetically modify chicken DNA so future domestic birds will be born with pink bones and pink feathers. Right now, though, the project appears to be little more than an artistic concept (complete with some photos of neon pink chicken meat, eggs, and bones).

It sounds like something out of a Margaret Atwood novel, but let's run with the idea: The modification would supposedly be done using the gene editing technique CRISPR, with adoption of the pink color accelerated by a gene drive, a mechanism for increasing the odds an offspring will inherit a trait—such as the color pink—from its parents. The pink color would come from cochineals, a little bug commonly used in food dye. The bug produces a chemical called carminic acid, which combines with calcium in bones to form a dye.

Why would anyone want to do this? According to the project's website, we should leave reminders for future generation of humanity's impact on the environment—in the form of discarded pink chicken bones.

Chickens come into the picture because they're the world's most common livestock animal—every year, over 60 billion chickens are killed, according to The Guardian, and their bones could wind up fossilized in landfills around the world.

Image: Pink Chicken Project

In addition to genetically modifying chicken DNA, the project creators also want to encode the following message in the chemical bases of chicken DNA (identified by the letters A, C, G, and T):

"We the humans of planet earth, write this message at the beginning of the Anthropocene, year 2017.

The current devastation of the planet is not the result of activities undertaken by the whole species Homo Sapiens: instead it derives from a small group of humans in power. We urge you to fight this oppression: for it enables and aggravates the anthropocentric violence forced upon the non-human world.

Sent in hope that you have re-imagined us as a biological organism, joined in symbiosis with each other and the planet."

If Pink Chicken Project's goals are carried out, we could live in a world with only pink chickens sooner than you think. They would first target broiler chickens, domestic chickens bred for the sole purpose of meat production, because their lifespans are so short (approximately 6 weeks), allowing the pink DNA to spread to the entire species in just a few years. White chickens would fade away until only pink chickens were left and every time you bit into a chicken wing, bright pink bones would peek out.

Image: Pink Chicken Project

The Pink Chicken Project website is also supposedly taking orders for your own pink egg, though the creators told Motherboard in an email: "We are not yet modifying (or shipping) any eggs, but are using the website to gather input on how to proceed with the project." Mostly, they are trying to gauge people's opinions on their idea. As they wrote to us: "The reason that we choose to come forward at this stage is that we realize that the project is controversial. To be successful in spreading the message contained in the pink chicken genome, we require input from a great number of people."

As for the actual feasibility of turning all chickens pink: don't hold your breath. Motherboard spoke via Skype to Dr. Paul Mozdziak, an expert in animal cell culture techniques and transgenic animal production at North Carolina State University, who himself created transgenic chickens with a "reporter" gene allowing researchers to track potential birth defects.

Mozdziak expressed skepticism about the project and told us, "There are three ways to deliver genes to the chick genome: a virus, embryonic stem cells, and primordial germ cells." Primordial germ cells are probably the best way to do it, but he explained that there are only a few laboratories in the world doing this because it is still very difficult and not as easy as Pink Chicken Project stated. He said it would be possible to use CRISPR to make the chicken bones pink; however, since the FDA still has not approved genetically modified organisms (GMOs) it is unlikely that the chickens could be sold along their non-pink counterparts.

While it's a long shot the world's chicken farmers and geneticists will back this plan, Pink Chicken Project raises important questions about the health of the planet and the power of genetic modification.

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