The Stay Puft Marshmallow Man Could Be Made of … Humans

New method for making human-based gelatin.

Yeah, that stopped me dead in my tracks, too, when I first read it. It is indeed genuine — a press release from the American Chemical Society, for a study just off the press in which a quartet of Beijing researchers produce, yes, human-derived gelatin.

My immediate thought was: WTF … ew! God no, EW.

Second was: Are they serious about putting that on the market? Because they’re going to need one mother of a PR company.

It’s a classic example of Science Jumping The Shark, except that, on third thought and thorough read, you realize that in some ways, it’s not as extreme as you think. Suspend your nausea and give the researchers the benefit of the doubt for just a minute: this is actually a perfectly reasonable and well-thought out study.

Most of the gelatin we eat — whether in our puddings, marshmallows or capsule-form multivitamins — comes from animals, livestock typically. Bones and skin (collagen) are broken down into protein chains that form a gel. But this isn’t a perfect system: the product that results can cause allergies in humans (especially bad when used medically); there is a slight, though not impossible risk of Mad Cow Disease; and the molecules derived from this messy process are not uniform, making the larger substance unreliable and harder to control.

Pretend for a minute you’ve not seen the words “human-derived” and look at the science. This process has the potential for  a much cleaner, simpler, and more controlled operation. There are no animals now: just yeast and three genes — three short strings of nucleic acids about as remote from humanity as a rock. They’re not pulled out of fingernail clippings, they’re purchased, isolated and cloned, from a genetic library and inserted into the workhorse yeast cells. The yeast then go on to produce uniform, manipulable, guaranteed-disease free gelatin. And, returning to the fact that these are combinations of As, Gs, Ts and Cs that happen to be found in people, it would, the authors tell me, eliminate the risk of an allergic immune response.

It’s a cleaner, easier and safer way to produce an incredibly ubiquitous product. And yet, it is still human-derived, it is basically human collagen, and at least in the food market, it stands a minuscule chance of succeeding. In medical contexts, maybe it can find a niche, but in your grocery store pudding? An awful lot of people are still pretty suspicious of far less controversially GM foods; how many of us could knowingly eat, without qualm, a pudding made with human genes? I couldn’t.

Science faces uphill battles in more than a few places. And when it comes to work like this, our visceral instincts are incredibly, overwhelmingly powerful.

As a closing note, as this is the single most relevant occasion I’ve ever had, and probably will ever have in which to invoke Soylent Green, I leave you with this (come on: did you really not see it coming?):