When a burger's not quite what it's beefed up to be

When a burger's not quite what it's beefed up to be

Earlier this month, two volunteers in London taste-tested the world's first beef burger created in a lab using stem cells from a living cow. Stem cells are blank slate cells that can develop into any cell type to form any tissue or organ.

Professor Mark Post of Maastricht University, the Netherlands, made the 140g patty at a cost of €250,000 (S$427,000). If the process can be scaled up industrially - within 20 years, Prof Post feels - you could find it in a Big Mac. You might think you won't ever eat it but the truth is that you could eat one without ever realising it.

This is because such bio-engineered food, usually referred to as being genetically modified (GM), is likely to be regulated very lightly. Under United States and Singapore laws, it won't even tell on the label at all. But in fact, a strong case can be made that all GM food should be labelled as such. This is because labelling gives consumers a choice. After all, GM food is "yucky" for many.

Many may also ask if it was safe to eat. Could those who regularly eat stem cell beef grow a horn or a hoof down the road?

Is there no possibility for bovine genes from cow stem cells to interfere with the expression of some human genes?

After all, a study published in Cell Research last year reported finding specific rice genes (called microRNA) in the blood of human subjects after eating rice. This meant that, after rice was digested, some rice genes did travel from the intestine into the blood where they were found to regulate the expression of some human genes.

By contrast, it is usually assumed that once digested, no genes are left around, all food ending up as nutrients that the body uses for growth and repair of tissues while any "junk" is excreted.

This study suggested, however, that genes in ingested food can remain after digestion and might interfere with our own genes.

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