Gelatin is found in everything from Jell-O and marshmallows to cosmetics and candles. But the current method of taking gelatin from the skin and bones of cows and pigs has a number of drawbacks, including variation in quality from batch to batch, the potential for transmitting infectious diseases like Mad Cow and the possibility of triggering immune system responses in humans. We may not have to rely on pig bones for gelatin forever, though the newest option--human derived gelatin--isn't too appetizing.
Beijing University of Chemical Technology researchers created the slightly creepy product by sticking human gelatin genes into a strain of yeast that can produce gelatin with reliable features--and a virtual guarantee that it won't be contaminated with pathogens or cause immune responses (because the gelatin molecules are based on human DNA sequences). No word on when the gelatin will be available for commercial use, but there are other companies working on similar products.
A San Francisco-based company called FibroGen is also developing "recombinant human gelatin" that has already been safely tested on humans as a stabilizer for vaccines. FibroGen is also talking with capsule manufacturers (think: capsules for medication) to study the feasibility of using recombinant gelatin in their products.
So here's the question: cow and pig-based gelatin is definitely not vegetarian, but what about human-derived gelatin? It doesn't come from actual people, but it is derived from human genes. At what point do genes represent a person that you don't want to eat? On the plus side, it's undoubtedly safer than today's gelatin, so perhaps we should consider it a stepping stone on the way to a less stomach-curdling gelatin source.
[Image: Flickr user stevendepolo]