Sunday, January 16, 2005

Genetically engineered milk

This is cool:
A cow called Pampa Mansa could be the key to cutting the high cost of human growth hormone, which is used to treat thousands of children with growth problems. The genetically modified Jersey cow produces so much of the hormone in her milk that just 15 cows like her could meet the current world demand.

Human growth hormone once had to be extracted from human cadavers but is now made in genetically modified bacteria. This form of the hormone is safer, but treatments can cost $30,000 a year.

To create an alternative source, a team led by Daniel Salamone at the University of Buenos Aires in Argentina added the human gene to cow cells growing in a dish. Pampa Mansa was created by cloning one of the modified cells.

At the age of one, Pampa Mansa was already producing 5 grams of the hormone per litre of milk, 10 per cent of the milk's protein content. That translates into at least 4 kilograms a year, over four times as much as a typical bacterial fermenter, the team will tell a meeting of the International Embryo Transfer Society in Copenhagen next week.
Someone is currently trying to do the same with spider silk, one of the strongest materials by weight known to man (5 times stronger than steel, twice as elastic as nylon, and biodegradable too). (Amusingly enough, you can't farm spiders the way you can silkworms, because the spiders eat each other.)

I wonder if anyone has tried doing this with insulin? I remember reading that the drive to produce recombinant human insulin in E. coli was the impetus behind the start of the "molecular biology revolution" in the late 1970's, and yet when they actually figured it out, it wasn't a whole lot cheaper than harvesting pig pancreases.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great blog (I found you through Majikthise).

A coworker and I stumbled onto a conversation last week about girls beginning menstruation at very young ages (9, in the case of his friend's daughter). He seems to think this is a trend, and his girlfriend claims it is due to cattle being treated with growth hormone (*bovine* growth hormone - sorry, a bit off-topic given the post). Any comment?

I thought this was almost certainly an urban legend; the only hits I got on Google were sites with political agendas, e.g. animal rights groups ("You mustn't eat meat or drink milk because [insert scare story here]!"). I also couldn't find any evidence that early menarche was a trend, only anecdotes.


Posted by graefix

1/17/2005 09:35:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Graefix, thanks for stopping by!

To be honest, I don't know all that much about the trend toward early menarche. But from what I do know, I think it is a real trend, but it has nothing to do with bovine growth hormone. As far as I know, the trend is simply caused by better nutrition - in that sense, it's analogous to why people are much taller these days than they were 200 years ago. We're just growing faster. This hypothesis might be supported by the fact that menstruation stops if you're malnourished.

Among hunter-gatherers, menstruation starts very late - I think in the Yanomamo people, it starts around age 15 or so. A lot of Yanomamo women get married off either before or immediately after puberty, in fact. (I don't know if this is true anymore, after their contact with the modern world, but apparently it was true in the 1960s when Chagnon did his research there.

I think the trend toward earlier puberty has been continuous in the modern (i.e. industrial) era, as a consequence of changing lifestyles (better nutrition, less hard labor). This has produced the pretty much unprecedented ever-widening gap between first menstruation and first child. (Weirdly enough to the modern mind, many hunter-gatherer women hardly ever menstruate, because they go through puberty later, have children earlier and then nurse each one for quite a long time.) 

Posted by Andrew

1/18/2005 12:03:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for the response, Andrew, and keep up the good work!

- graefix

Posted by graefix

1/18/2005 11:18:00 PM  
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