Yes, you can make a burger out of human stem cells - but you probably wouldn't want to

After the success of the test-tube burger, Michael Brooks answers the question on everyone in the NS offices lips: "Why not make burgers from human stem cells?"

Sometimes the NS’s offices resound with provocative questions. Last week, it was: “Why not make burgers from human stem cells?”

This is not as ridiculous as it might first seem. It would be the pinnacle of ethical carnivorous living, the only way you could eat prime meat with the full, informed consent of the donor.

It wouldn’t be cheap. The price of a burger cultured from human cells would make the €250,000 feed, created by the Maastricht University researcher Mark Post and formally presented on 5 August, look like a bargain. Human stem-cell culture for medical research is done under the most onerous safety restrictions and following strict protocols. Culturing human cells for human consumption would be just as onerous (and thus expensive) as it is for medical research because we would have to make sure there was no chance the cells could become infected by viruses or bacteria.

Eating other animals is safer simply because the pathogens that make them ill do not necessarily make humans ill. Eat your own kind and you risk unleashing all kinds of hell. That was what the BSE crisis was all about. Ingestion of ground-up cattle brains in cheap cattle feed led to an epidemic of the bovine disease. A similar phenomenon was discovered in human beings in the 1950s. The Fore people of Papua New Guinea were eating their deceased relatives in order to absorb their strength and other qualities. Enormous numbers of them contracted kuru, a disease related to BSE, which killed hundreds of them.

Yet many more Fore women and children died of kuru than men (to the point where the women accused the men of using witchcraft to destroy them). Usually, in the traditional funeral rites, the men were given the prime cuts to eat –muscle tissue –while the women and children got the brains and organs, which harboured disease in far more virulent measure. The Fore men were largely fine, so you could argue that cannibalism is not necessarily a health hazard: it’s eating the wrong bits that kills you.

The real show-stopper for the human stem-cell burger is the bit that most of the media coverage glossed over. Growing those stem cells is not a matter of scattering them in a bed of organic grass. The cells are grown in a cocktail of antibiotics and “fetal bovine serum”. This is blood drawn from foetuses that have been removed from slaughtered pregnant cows.

At about £160 (or three cow foetuses, depending on how you want to look at it) a litre, this is the most expensive part of the whole process. It is also the most distasteful. Experiencing poor mouthfeel from a burger is one thing. Knowing a cow foetus has had its heart punctured and sucked dry in order to grow the meat is quite another.

Medical researchers get through roughly half a million litres of fetal bovine serum a year because its hormones and growth factors are so essential to stem-cell growth. There are problems with it, though. The chemicals it contains can skew the outcome of experiments. In addition, the serum is extracted in a slaughterhouse, with no anaesthetic, and research shows that the foetus probably feels pain or discomfort.

The good news is researchers are looking for replacements. Human umbilical-cord blood plasma, for instance, looks like a good candidate. But considering how few of us out there would stomach a dish containing human placenta, you could bet that there’s not much of a market for any of this.

So, yes, you can have a human burger. But we suspect you don’t want one. Not really.

You are what you eat - or at least you might be. Photograph: Getty Images.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 19 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Why aren’t young people working

Sam Pepper via YouTube
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The story of Sam Pepper: how a British YouTuber incurred the wrath of the internet

The Dapper Laughs of online pranks  has finally gone too far.

Last night, a Twitter user claiming to be "a voice" for hacker collective Anonymous sent out a series of angry tweets slamming a video featuring "violent abuse". The user wasn't referring to Isis, which is the subject of an ongoing campaign by the hacker group, but a young, turquoise-haired British man named Sam Pepper. 

Pepper is a YouTube star who came to fame after appearing in the 11th series of reality show Big Brother. He's known for his prank YouTube videos posted under the username "Sam", which have in the past involved such hilarious japes as wearing a prosthetic old man's face and climbing into bed with his own girlfriend. He now lives in LA, but is friends with other prominent British YouTubers, including, of course, Zoella. 

So on the face of it, it's a little surprising that @TheAnonMessage blasted out this tirade against the star last night as a series of tweets to his 170,000-odd followers:

We've been notified of a sick, disturbing video uploaded by @sampepper. Yet again, he uses violent abuse to garner subscribers.

This is something that we cannot stand for. This so-called prank should bring shame to the YouTube community for supporting this imbecile.

This video must be taken down. @SamPepper you have been warned. You have 24 hours or we will unleash fucking hell on you.

The video in question, "KILLING BEST FRIEND PRANK | Ft. Sam & Colby", was published on 29 November but already has over two million views. In it, Pepper teams up with another Sam, half of the YouTube duo Sam & Colby, to pretend to, er, kill him, and terrify Colby in the process.

Sam and Colby drive into shot, then both get out of the car to check the oil. A figure wearing a black balaclava grabs Colby, put a bag over his head, tapes up his hands and dumps him in the boot of the car, all with Sam's help. The pair take him to a rooftop, where the bag is removed, and Pepper - the masked attacker - shoots Colby in the head with a fake gun. The visual references to Isis are hard to ignore:  

Photo: Sam Pepper via YouTube

What follows is a genuinely disturbing thirty seconds in which Colby screams and cries, eventually drowned out and replaced in the video's edit by tinkly piano music. Finally, Sam stands up and reveals he isn't dead. 

YouTubers responded angrily to the prank. Commenters called it "cruel" and seemed genuinely distressed by Colby's experience. The video's approval ratings, represented by thumbs up and thumbs down, are a good indication of audience reaction: 

So what happens if Pepper doesn't remove the video within 24 hours? Gabriella Coleman, author of Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous told me that "[@TheAnonMessage] has earned the wrath of Anonymous for acting irresponsibly" in the past (most notably, the user launched an attack on the wrong Ferguson police officer), and isn't part of the main Anonymous group. However, this doesn't mean the user couldn't attack Sam's channel or website. Either way, @TheAnonMessage has leapt on the coattails of a controversy that seems to have caught the imagination of large swathes of social media.

From Pepper's own point of view, though, it's easy to see why the whole furore is a little mystifying. His entire empire is founded on pushing boundaries of acceptability, and no one involved in this particular prank is angry - the video includes an epilogue where he chats to Sam and Colby, and Sam grins and exclaims "that was crazy!".

There's a parallel with the comedian Daniel O'Reilly (also known by his persona Dapper Laughs) here: both are young male entertainers who built an online audience through pushing the envelope with humour and pranks, and are then a bit shocked when they cross an invisible line and are lambasted for behaviour not dissimilar to the actions that earned them followers in the first place. 

Pepper, like Dapper, has been accused of misogyny, and even sexual harassment in his videos - he removed one, "Fake Hand Pinch Prank", which involved grabbing women in public using a fake hand, following online outcry. Yet one of his most watched videos is "How to Make Out with Strangers”, in which he approaches random women in Miami, says things like “I’m seeing which beautiful girls would like to make out…with me,” and kisses them. The video received none of the same criticism, and earned him over 17 million views. You can see why he might not be getting the message. 

The difference between the two videos lies, of course, in consent, as Pepper at least pretends to ask the women's permission in the Miami video. Yet as YouTuber Laci Green gently points out in an open letter to Pepper written at the time: "You pressure women on camera to make out with you - again, many of whom are visibly uncool with it. Confused and caught off guard, they painfully follow through with your requests, clearly uncomfortable."

What's clear is that the internet is still trying to figure out what is acceptable in the realm of humour. Internet-friendly humour tends to be slapstick, brash, irrelevant, and involve making fun of gormless members of the public. But pushed to extremes - the extremes which can seem necessary to make a name for yourself in the saturated vlogger market - these gags can easily turn nasty. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.