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

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Everything that is wrong with the app Facebook doesn't want over 21s to download

Facebook's new teen-only offering, Lifestage, is just like your mum: it's trying too hard to relate and it doesn't care for your privacy.

Do you know the exact moment Facebook became uncool? Designed as a site to connect college students in 2004, the social network enjoyed nearly a decade of rapid, unrivalled growth before one day your mum – yes, your mum – using the same AOL email address she’s had since her dial-up days, logged on. And then she posted a Minion meme about drinking wine.

Facebook knows it’s uncool. It had a decline in active users in 2014, and in 2015 a survey of 4,485 teens discovered it came seventh in a ranking of ten social apps in terms of coolness. In fact, only 8 per cent of its users are aged between 13 and 19. This is the main reason the corporation have now created Lifestage, an app specifically for under-21s to “share a visual profile of who [they] are with [their] school network”.

Here’s how it works. After signing up and selecting their school, users are prompted to create a series of short videos – of their facial expressions, things they like, and things they dislike – that make up their profile. Once 20 people from any school sign up, that school is unlocked, meaning everyone within it can access one another’s profiles as well as those from nearby schools. Unlike Snapchat (and truly, this is the only thing that is unlike Snapchat) there is no chat function, but teens can put in their phone number and Instagram handles in order to talk. Don’t worry, though, there are still vomit-rainbows.

But with this new development, rather than hosting your mum, Facebook has become her. Lifestage is not only an embarrassing attempt to be Down With The Kids via the medium of poop emoji, it is also an invasive attempt to pry into their personal lives. Who’s your best friend? What do you like? What’s not cool? These are all questions the app wants teens to answer, in its madcap attempt to both appeal to children and analyse them.

“Post what you are into right now – and replace the video in that field whenever you want,” reads the app description on the iTunes store. “It's not just about the happy moments – build a video profile of the things you like, but also things you don’t like.” They might as well have written: “Tell us what’s cool. Please.”

Yet this is more than an innocent endeavour to hashtag relate, and is a very real attempt, like Facebook’s many others, to collect as much data on users as possible. Teens – no matter how many hot pink splashes and cartoon toilet rolls are used to infantilise them – are smart enough to have figured this out, with one of the 16 reviews of the app on the iTunes store titled “Kinda Sorta Creepy”, and another, by a user called Lolzeka, reading:

“I don't like how much information you have to give out. I don't want my phone number to be known nor do I want everyone to know my Instagram and Snapchat. I could not figure out how to take a picture or why my school was needed. Like I said, I don't want all my information out there.”

But Facebook already knows everything about everyone ever, and it’s not this data-mining that is the most concerning element of the app. It is the fact that – on an app specifically designed for children as young as 13 to share videos of themselves – there is no user verification process. “We can't confirm that people who claim to go to a certain school actually go to that school,” Facebook readily admits.

Although the USP of this app is that those over the age of 21 can only create a profile and aren’t allowed to view others, there isn’t a failsafe way to determine a user’s age. There is nothing to stop anyone faking both their age and the school they go to in order to view videos of, and connect with, teens.

Yet even without anyone suspicious lurking in the shadows, the app’s privacy settings have already come under scrutiny. The disclaimer says all videos uploaded to Lifestage are “fully public content” and “there is no way to limit the audience of your videos”. Despite the fact it is designed to connect users within schools, videos can be seen anyone, regardless of their school, and are “viewable by everyone”.

Of course none of this matters if teens don’t actually bother to use the app, which is currently only available in the US. Lifestage’s creator, 19-year-old Michael Sayman, designed it as a “way to take Facebook from 2004 and bring it to 2016”. Although he has the successful app 4Snaps under his belt, there is no guarantee Lifestage will succeed where Facebook’s other app attempts (Notify, Facebook Gifts, Poke) have not.

There are a few tricks Facebook has put in place to prompt the app to succeed, including the fact that users are ranked by how active they are, and those who don’t post enough updates will be labelled with a frowning or (here we go again) poop emoji. Still, this hardly seems enough for an app whose distinguishing feature is “Privacy? Nah.” 

Only time will tell whether the app will appeal to teens, but one thing is certain: if it does, your mum is totally downloading it.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.