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Got Hormones?: Engineering the Nation's Milk Supply

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Long before the first GM food hit the shelves and far before “Frankenfood” frenzy erupted in Europe, transgenic technology had made its way into one of America's most sacred and wholesome foodstuffs: milk. Feeding off the 1980s biotech blockbusters, symbolized by the development of recombinant insulin in the human drug realm, several large multinationals—including Monsanto, Upjohn, Eli Lilly, and American Cyanamid—had begun to dream about making bacteria pump out hefty doses of a recombinant growth factor called bovine somatatropin (rBST—also known as recombinant bovine growth hormone, or rBGH). It was rumored that when fed to cows, this factor would dramatically increase milk production. Company executives reasoned that large vats of this high-octane hormone could spell millions in profits—$500 million, to be exact, based on preapproval anticipated sales figures reported in the Wall Street Journal in 1989.

Indeed, the genetic recipe for rBST had already been patented in 1980 by Genentech, the company that was about to put biotech venture capital on the map with Humulin, the recombinant human insulin drug that would debut in 1982 as the first recombinant human pharmaceutical to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). But with its agricultural reverberations, rBST was an obvious piece of intellectual property that belonged in Monsanto's stable, and in 1981, the company had licensed the patent rights from Genentech. A few years after that, Monsanto began large-scale trials treating cows with this magic bullet that it hoped would greatly up the ante on milk production.

The potential to use naturally occurring growth hormones to increase milk production in dairy herds had been recognized as early as the 1930s, but the labor and expense of extracting the relatively small quantities of BST present in bovine pituitary glands made it prohibitive for wide-scale use. But five decades later, as the biotech bubble began to swell and new tricks and tools had come available, researchers revved their recombinant engines at the thought of churning out artificial hormones that might power the dairy industry. The potential to produce rBST on a massive scale and use it to supercharge the metabolism and milk production of America's dairy cows in a big way looked like an opportunity just begging to be milked.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: December 10, 2008

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