Gelatin is an essential ingredient in gummy snacks and marshmallows, not to mention vaccines and drug capsules. Manufacturing it is a messy, inconsistent process, but now scientists can create perfect gelatin with human DNA. The only obstacle seems to be our own squeamishness.
In 2011, scientists in Beijing reported on a method of creating large amounts of gelatin by inserting human DNA fragments into yeast. Human DNA-derived gelatin has actually been in use for a while, in vaccine preparation and the gel caps that many over the counter drugs come in. This method created such large quantities of gelatin that it would be practical to use it for more common consumer goods like candy and baking supplies.
This is actually a brilliant breakthrough, because it avoids a whole lot of problems inherent in “natural” gelatin production. It’s incredibly difficult to get consistent results when manufacturing gelatin, and consistency is very important with vaccines. Because gelatin is derived from animal by-products, it can cause allergic reactions or be off limits to people with ethical or religious reasons for avoiding animal products.
Despite all the upside, almost every media outlet that initially covered this story lead with something to the effect of, “Ewwwww gross!” Here are some of the words and phrases I came across while researching this: “ghoulish,” “cannibalism,” “the guilty party in a sci-fi show about enslaved human clones.” One writer compared it to the infamous ice cream made from human breast milk.
Here’s the thing – gelatin derived from human DNA is not made with human tissues in any way. It’s pure chemistry. Regular gelatin? It’s rendered by boiling a mess of animal byproducts like pig skins, cattle bones and entire horses. And people are worried about a few nucleic acids?
Fibrogen. “Recombinant Human Gelatin.”
Marszal, Andrew. “Do you fancy a jelly baby made from human DNA?” The Telegraph.
Marx, Rebecca. “Gelatin Made From Human DNA May Soon Make Its Way Into a Gummi Bear Near You.” Village Voice.