Building a $325 000 burger
As a gastronomic delicacy, the 140g hamburger that Mark Post (left) has painstakingly created here surely will not turn any heads. But Dr Post is hoping that it will change some minds. The hamburger, assembled from tiny bits of beef muscle tissue grown in a laboratory and to be cooked and eaten at an event in London, perhaps in a few weeks, is meant to show the world — including potential sources of research funds — that so-called in vitro meat, or cultured meat, is a reality.
“Let’s make a proof of concept, and change the discussion from ‘this is never going to work’ to, ‘well, we actually showed that it works, but now we need to get funding and work on it,’ “ Dr Post said in an interview last fall in his office at Maastricht University.
Down the hall, in a lab with incubators filled with clear plastic containers holding a pinkish liquid, a technician was tending to the delicate task of growing the tens of billions of cells needed to make the burger, starting with a particular type of cell removed from cow necks obtained at a slaughterhouse.
The idea of creating meat in a laboratory — actual animal tissue, not a substitute made from soybeans or other protein sources — has been around for decades. The arguments in favour of it are many, covering both animal welfare and environmental issues.
A 2011 study in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, for example, showed that full-scale production of cultured meat could greatly reduce water, land and energy use, and emissions of methane and other greenhouse gases, compared with conventional raising and slaughtering of cattle or other livestock. Those environmental arguments will only gain strength, advocates say, as worldwide demand for meat increases with the rise of middle-class populations in China and elsewhere.
Dr Post, one of a handful of researchers in the field, has made strides in developing cultured meat through the use of stem cells — precursor cells that can turn into others that are specific to muscle, for example — and techniques adapted from medical research for growing tissues and organs, a field known as tissue engineering. (Indeed, Dr Post, a physician, considers himself first and foremost a tissue engineer, and about four-fifths of his time is dedicated to studying how to build blood vessels.)
Yet growing meat in the laboratory has proved difficult and devilishly expensive. Dr Post, who knows as much about the subject as anybody, has repeatedly postponed the hamburger cook-off, which was originally expected to take place in November.
His burger consists of about 20,000 thin strips of cultured muscle tissue. Dr Post, who has conducted some informal taste tests, said that even without any fat, the tissue “tastes reasonably good”. For the London event he plans to add only salt and pepper.
But the meat is produced with materials — including fetal calf serum, used as a medium in which to grow the cells — that eventually would have to be replaced by similar materials of non-animal origin. And the burger was created at phenomenal cost — 250,000 euros, or about $325,000, provided by a donor who so far has remained anonymous. Large-scale manufacturing of cultured meat that could sit side by side with conventional meat in a supermarket and compete with it in price is at the very least a long way off.
“This is still an early-stage technology,” said Neil Stephens, a social scientist at Cardiff University in Wales who has long studied the development of what is also sometimes referred to as “shmeat.” “There’s still a huge number of things they need to learn.”
There are also questions of safety — though Dr Post and others say cultured meat should be as safe as, or safer than, conventional meat, and might even be made to be healthier — and of the consumer appeal of a product that may bear little resemblance to a thick, juicy steak.
“This is something very new,” Dr Stephens said. “People need to wrestle with the idea of whether this is meat or not.”…..
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