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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Why I refuse to complain about email spam

The bleaker things get, the easier it is to be annoyed about absolutely everything.

“I need just one night and your cock
I want to give you a [sic] head Nice [sic] ginger hair and big bubbly boobs”

It reads like poetry. Poetry by an early 00s DVD player that has recently mastered the English language and doesn’t know what to do with it. A DVD player that’s lying on a skip and has a discarded Cornetto sitting atop its plastic exoskeleton like a depressing party hat, sluggishly oozing ice cream into all its crevices. Yes. If a broken and abandoned DVD player were to start writing poems, they’d probably look a bit like that stunningly naïve and post-post-modern cock and bubbly boobs mess.

Innermost contemplations of an obsolete piece of technology or not, these lines of poetry recently appeared in my email junk folder. Subject line: “Sex right now.” Sender: “Teresa Hughes”.

The bleaker things get (economically, politically, socially) the easier it is to complain about absolutely everything. Knowing that I’ll probably spend the rest of my life either living with my parents or renting shitholes from miserly Dickensian landlords makes selfie sticks all the more annoying. And slow walkers. And rugby fans. And people who stand on street corners, shouting about Jesus and doom. All of these things, within the context of generalised rubbishness, are worthy of a billion pissed off tweets.

Spam, on the other hand, the bugbear of the privileged but stressed since about 1996, is one of the increasingly few things about which I refuse to complain. Reason being: spam, the porny kind in particular, has always been there for me… in a way.  

I can’t remember my first email address. Knowing prepubescent me, it was probably a) boringly weird and b) just a fucking abomination. Something like What I can remember though is being emailed about blowjobs way before I knew what they were. Which was, in a sense, educational.

Over the past few days, my junk folder has been inundated by requests from robots who want to do stuff to my penis. This is my first incursion of porn spam in a long while; years, possibly. And I’m finding it almost impossible to be annoyed or disgusted by it. Instead, I’ve been getting nostalgic. Nostalgic for a simpler digital time. A time in which connecting to the internet made a sound like an android with norovirus, and people were trusting enough to click on links in emails with subject lines like, “Mega-PU$$Y 4 U!!!!”.

I like to imagine that, over the next century, great leaders will come and go; empires will rise and fall; bootcut jeans will have moments of fashionableness roughly every fifteen years; and, all the while, people like “Teresa Hughes” will email us reminders that they would dearly like to suck us off, in exchange for a hard drive-melting virus.

Plus, I was only being a little bit facetious about that “poem” thing. When I did an art history elective at uni, a lot of it was spent gazing at pictures of Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” (that urinal that’s art) and wondering what art actually is. Can a urinal be art? Can Danny Dyer be art? And, most pressingly, can spam be art? In one word: sure.

Let’s return our attention to those lines of spam at the beginning of the piece. I shall now attempt to apply GCSE-level analysis to Sex Now by “Teresa Hughes” (the lesser-known offspring of Ted and Sylvia, presumably).

The speaker, a woman, in a grab for immediate attention, addresses the reader directly. The line break after “cock” places emphasis on that word, reassuring the reader just how much she “needs” his/her penis. The unusual phrasing in the next line, “a head”, rather than “head”, for example, is a play on words that neatly juxtaposes [seriously, how much did you use the word “juxtapose” in GCSE English essays?] the primal act of giving head with the intellectual act of having one (and using it).  The alliteration in “big bubbly boobs” highlights the exact largeness and roundness pertaining to the speaker’s breasts. Furthermore, she wants us to know that her horniness transcends grammar.

Even furthermore, spam is literature and the world would be a darker place without it. So don’t be a great honking philistine and complain about it.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.