The nutrients in human breast milk are incredibly important for a young baby’s immune system. But when that’s unavailable, perhaps a little genetically modified goat’s milk could help.
It’s hard to understate the importance of your mom. Mother’s milk instills lifelong flavor preferences and populates your microbiome with bacterial life that defines you as an adult. The maternal stuff of life also gives your body its first defenses against the onslaught of childhood infections. When infants don’t receive those immunological protections, and instead drink formula made with tainted water (an incredibly common problem in the developing world), it can have lethal consequences.
The other problem: Not all milk is created equal. “Human breast milk is very different from cow or goat milk,” Elizabeth Maga, an animal scientist at University of California-Davis, says. “Human babies need different type of nourishment than animals.” (Indeed, as J. Bruce German, a food chemist and milk expert also at the University of California-Davis, says, “It’s even difficult to extrapolate some of the benefits of human milk from one mother to another.”)
In other words, even when human breast milk isn’t available, we probably won’t be bringing back the days of wet-nursing babies on non-human bovine or caprine surrogates any time soon–as the Greek god Zeus was said to have done as a baby or as 19th century Catholic nuns in Italy and France did with abandoned children. At least, on regular goats and cows. There may be some better options, soon, because Maga and her colleagues have successfully added human genes for some of the enzymes and proteins found in breast milk to domesticated mammals.