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Saturday, June 23, 2012

Low-Lactose Milk Straight From the Source

"Scientists at a north China university say they have bred the world's first genetically-modified calf that will produce low-lactose milk in two years."

That ought to make you bolt upright in your seats, and your eyeballs pop out of your head.

Imagine. Low-lactose milk, low-lactose dairy products, low-lactose everything. That's a dream come true for those of us who are lactose intolerant. (Sorry, allergy sufferers and vegans. You can stop reading now. I'll get to articles for you pretty soon, though.)

I haven't seen anything about this breakthrough in the U.S. media, but it's big news all over Asia. That first paragraph is taken from, a Chinese English-news website, under the title of "Genetically engineered, low-lactose dairy calf bred in China."

A more detailed article can be found on Pakistan's national newspaper's site, The Nation.

The technique is similar to the one that created Dolly, the closed sheep, back in 1996. Instead of making an exact duplicate, though, one gene is changed so that the cow will produce a "lactose dissolution enzyme" that will break down the milk's lactose into glucose and galactose, exactly as the lactase in a pill does.

We're still very much in the experimental stage, so don't expect natural Chinese low-lactose milk to show up on your grocery shelves very soon. Only one of the 14 modified embryos made it to calfhood. She has to grow up and start producing milk before we know for sure that the technique is viable and that's a minimum of two years. A herd of low-lactose cows is farther out on the horizon and the generally availability of the milk is in Jetsons territory.

I'm encouraged by the news, nevertheless. It means that some scientists are actually thinking about the problem of lactose intolerance. Few if any do in the U.S. Here it's a settled issue for a tiny minority and shows no signs of ever growing in interest. Not so in Asia, where several billion LI consumers are becoming a viable market.

The path won't be easy even in Asia. Any gene changes, even for something as absolutely benign as manufacturing lactase, is like waving red flags at a segment of the population. Genetically modified (GM) foods are going to be a stormy issue all over the world. The discussion of it won't be rational, because it touches on primal feelings on what people fell is "right". And it's absolutely true that GM techniques can result - inadvertently or deliberately - in horrible harm. I know that's true because everything, every single thing, every change, every advance, every invention, every policy, every law, every idea can result - inadvertently or deliberately - in horrible harm. Banning all GM because it can result in harm deprives us of all the amazingly huge piles of good that the technique is also capable of. That's bad science and bad logic. We need to examine issues one by one to determine whether their possible value outweighs the possible ills. Low-lactose cows seem to fall squarely on the side of value. We won't know for sure for many years, but I find this good news to read.

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