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Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Domesticating Cancer

Crispy pork adobo

I recently spent time in Seattle at Norwescon, a science fiction convention, and got to talk about science and speculation about the future of food. While it is fun to speculate, among the scenarios we talked about was the issue about predicted future shortages as the global climate changes. I had to point out that some of the panicked speculation of future food shortages stem from a very first world centric view of what is acceptably food. Shared preferences in food may constitute a primal tribal discriminator in humans, which, of course, means that despite a predicted food shortage, people still worried about the availability of meat.

That leads us to the idea of vat-grown or tissue cultured meat. Although alleging to assuage vegan concerns about killing animals for food, sadly, this process remains expensive and ironic - the growth factors that are used in tissue culture are extracted from other animals. For now, the most cost effective way to make a steak is a cow. Come to think of it, wouldn't it be great if a cow would just regenerate an edible part, and we didn't have to kill the animal?

We could do just that. Animals can be generated with a genetic background that lets them spontaneously generate tumors - which we can harvest for food. Despite any misgivings, there shouldn't be any particularly adverse reactions to eating tumors - it would just be meat. In fact, benign tumors are probably already in some of the meat we eat today. The moral justification would be easier - we are saving the animal's life by lopping off the cancer.

But this is just the beginning, of course. Well behaved cancer stem cells can be used to seed animals, leading to exotic meats that can be cultured on host animals. The transmissible face cancer from Tasmanian devils suggests that a biological mechanism can be built into tumors that can avoid rejection - and then that opens up the possibility of culturing various exotic meats on domestic animals. Or perhaps, another biotech path to acceptable cannibalism that may be morally acceptable to some vegans. 

1 comment:

  1. This post is both totally fascinating and utterly disgusting. I don't mean to be rude, I'm laughing over here!!!! It's just so, so, grossinating!