Jello Made From Humans Is Not As Weird As It Sounds

By Veronique Greenwood | July 15, 2011 1:17 pm


What’s the News: Several days ago, a tasty tidbit hit the science blogosphere: writing in a journal of the American Chemical Society, scientists reported the successful production of gelatin from human proteins.

Understandably, the verdict of the crowd was, “Groooooosss!” The details of the experiment were dutifully reported—the human gene for collagen, the protein in skin and bones that makes up gelatin, was inserted into a yeast,  which then cranked it out, along with the help of certain enzymes—but its purpose was sometimes glossed over in favor of giant images of quivering dessert. Like the one above. Yum.

So why use human genes to make gelatin?

Scientists are not actually on a mission to (a) gross us out, or (b) make us into cannibals. Gelatin, summed up quickly, is usually made by boiling and chemically processing the bones, skin, and connective tissue of animals like cows and pigs to release collagen, a long molecule that, when further broken down by heat and mixed with water, will set into a gel at room temperature. This is where your jiggly dessert comes from (apologies if I’ve just turned you vegetarian, or at least non-gelat-tarian).

Unfortunately, this process yields pieces of collagen of all different lengths, and that can affect a product’s ability to gel. Manufacturers would much prefer collagen of standardized lengths, with more reliable behavior. Furthermore, ever since mad cow disease came onto the scene, regulators have wondered whether gelatin, made from bits of many, many animals blended together, could transmit such a disease (they generally think that this isn’t a problem, but it was a chilling thought). Also, it turns out that some people can have immune reactions to the animal proteins in gelatin, and since gelatin has all kinds of medical uses, including in vaccines and pill capsules, avoiding this is of key importance.

All of these combined lead us to the research goal of, first, making collagen in yeast, which are unlikely to pass on diseases to us, and, second, using human genes to do it, to avoid any immune reactions, as well as to take advantage of the fact that the human collagen produced this way is of uniform length. Bada bing, bada boom.

Human gelatin, thus, likely has its market niche in medical products, where these qualities are most important. Because of the gross-out factor, it seems unlikely at first glance it would replace the animal version in desserts wholesale, but who knows: grocery shelves already contain many products whose manufacture seems unsavory when consumers take a closer look. Like, for instance, gelatin.

Image credit: Steven Depolo / flickr

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Living World
  • Carol Satterfield

    At first I was disgusted–thinking human flesh material was used. Now that I understand it is made with a gene of collagen that is replicated outside a human body and made into jello, I think it’s a great idea. This food should be much more useful to the human body.

  • Carol

    Who ever thought of grinding and boiling poor animals in geletin? Gross anyway.
    So human gelatin is no different and would be kinder, as no animals would be used!

  • Kushal

    This is synonymous to how they manufacture human insulin. Insert the gene into a bacteria to have it manufacture the protein for you, no big deal as far as being grossed out.

  • Zara Khan

    When I first read the article’s title, I was like,”awe-coooool!”
    Guess, watching too much of ‘Dexter’ does that to you, haha.

  • amphiox

    The animal parts used to make gelatin are byproducts left over from other butchery processes, so no additional animal suffering is entailed by its manufacture. Those materials are generated whether or use them to make gelatin or not, and if you don’t use them, they are simply thrown away.

  • Paul

    This seems like it would be too expensive for culinary purposes. Perhaps the gene could be added to a plant?

  • Thomas

    Hmm. Soylent Green dessert (Is that lime? Uh, not quite….)

    However, I think this would make it even less popular in hospitals, if that’s possible.

  • Shana

    I’m definitely never eating jello again!

  • plutosdad

    You really needed to use a picture of lime jello for this :)

  • John Lerch

    Yeast isn’t a plant; but how is putting it into a plant better than putting it into yeast?

  • Durant S.

    A new use for human cadavers ! A third choice for the families of the deceased; i.e., burial, cremation or now: gelatin !

  • coryy

    How does this production of meat based gelatin desserts relate to agar based gelatin desserts?
    Are the collagen strands any more uniform or less uniform in an agar based gel? Or is the gelling mechanism involved in an agar based gelatin different from an animal based one? Why are we still using animal products to make gelatin when agar agar is available? Not from a vegetarian perspective, but from a “seems like using agar agar would be much less effort than animal by-product processing” perspective.
    Any ideas?

  • Angelia Sparrow

    Carol, boiling down the carcasses has been done from earliest times, to maximize use of an animal. The good cuts of meat were eaten or preserved, the hide was tanned, the organs were utilized in pies, the bones boiled down to get the remaining scraps of meat and some broth (long bones were often used after this to make things as well, combs, brushes, hairpins, decorative carvings.) The broth would gel up and make a meal on its own.

    One of the earliest recipes for gelatin, or aspic, dates to 1375.

    And coryy, I can never get agar to set up right.

  • Gordon R


    A fine step towards Soylent Green! Well done!

  • Sinister Duck

    I’d eat it. And I’m a picky eater.

  • Hefsmaster

    Fact of the matter is people are actually buying into this crap. When mankind is eating it’s own literally, no matter what form you put it in. Reconstituted crap burgers or jello… It proves that most people would fail a basic george benard shaw test… This is all a part of the global warming/climate change?, agenda 21, rural council development, Iron Mountain Report, knock out every bird with one stone. SS, medicare,medicaid,the debt, the enemy, and YOU… To understand the slippery slope of justification should leave you with the question of “why do they want me to eat my own”?

  • Dave

    This is why I never ask how they make the sausage.

  • mrbadhabits

    grossed out by the relevation that gelatin is made by rendering bones, cartilage, and other meat processing wastes? there’s so much more than that – and you don’t really want to know.

  • Gordo

    While this story, and reader reactions to it, are sensationalizing the process, what is under-emphasized is the importance of collagen in medical applications. In many instances, absorbable sutures are required during surgery. For many years, the collagen used in the production of absorbable sutures has been derived from slaughterhouse byproduct.

    Oh, and about that sausage? Many (most?) sausage casings have for years also been manufactured using byproduct-derived collagen.

  • Malcolm

    So are vegans going to be allowed to eat this now?

  • MacLir

    Agar isn’t gelatin, per se.

    Gelatin, as discussed, is a gelled colloid of cross-linked protein strands holding water (and whatever else).

    Agar is also a colloid, but the active ingredient is a long-chain polysaccharide (polymer of sugar units). Other examples are the carragheenan in ice cream and chocolate milk, which is shorter chains and stays mainly soluble in cold liquids providing a thickener, and cellulose, which is super long chains and is insoluble in water. Agar is soluble in hot water and gels in cold – you can extract it in crude form by boiling any of a number of marine seaweeds.

    Gelatin also has a mainly linear response to heat, the warmer the gel, the softer; whereas agar has a hysteresis curve – it stays solid until hot, then melts, and stays liquid until it cools, then gels.

  • vickie98531

    Thank you MacLir, for that bit of info. My daughter is vegetarian but unfortunately didn’t become aware of gelatins (for Jello) origins for many years after her switch.

    Just so the others reading this post know, all forms of carragheenans are vegan. Its derived from seaweeds! Good to eat and good for us – or at least it was before they began the processing of it.

  • fuzz bob

    interesting how many commentors didn’t read the article.

  • http://facebook Susan Ballarini

    This is a very bad idea, and I am relatively sure it is not for our “good.” Mad cow disease was ceated by feeding cows cow proteins. This will happen to us, and who is to say that human virus DNA will not be inserted on purpose or accidentally. This is not progress, it is a step toward soylent green fate. Oh well, they have made food from shit, too. We are at the mercy of the mad scientists and the government regarding what we eat as we will soon not be allowed to grow anything at all. Why don’t people just stop having so many babies; then the government would stop trying to exterminate us.

  • http://facebook Susan Ballarini

    …and where do they get this human protein? Are donors alive or dead? Willing or unwilling?

  • Daniel Quuinarin

    …. Ew, never going near Jell-O when that hits market shelves, even if it is Replicated inside of yeast. The Gene which it originally came from was originally in a human. I could care less if it was from a cow or pig, I eat them anyway but if i’m eating 10,00 replicated cells from a guy named Bill I would puke my brains out. Also why? is having Jell-O that holds together better or is healthier really worth eating a piece of someone?


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