Oct 252011

Mark Post has been given €300,000 to make a hamburger, in one year.

Easy money, you might think, but try doing that without using meat that has come from an animal.

Professor Post is one of the few people on the planet who can. As head of the department of vascular physiology at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, he is in the vanguard of a new wave of research to create a way of producing meat that cuts out the need for animal husbandry altogether.

Instead of getting meat from animals raised in pastures, he wants to grow steaks in lab conditions, directly from muscle stem cells. If successful, the technology will transform the way we produce food. “We want to turn meat production from a farming process to a factory process,” he explained.

Prof Post is not the first to dream this dream. In the mid 20th Century, Dutchman Willem van Eelen – back then a budding medical student – dreamt of creating meat without killing animals, by using stem cells.

A stem cell is a special type of cell capable of replicating itself many many times and differentiating into specialised cell types, such as muscle cells.

Dr van Eelen pursued his dream for decades, but made little progress. Then in 1999 he was granted a patent on the idea and slowly the world started to take notice.

In 2002, NASA took a passing interest in the idea and funded Morris Benjaminson at Touro College, New York, to investigate making meat from muscle cells as a way to feed astronauts on deep space journeys.

Dr Benjaminson removed a sample of cells from the muscle of a goldfish and managed to grow it outside the fish’s body. The fillet was marinated in garlic, lemon, pepper and olive oil and deep-fried. A panel of testers inspected the fillet and said it smelt and looked just like the real thing, but they weren’t allowed to eat it because of US laws prohibiting consumption of experimental products.

Unfortunately, NASA decided there were easier and cheaper ways to feed astronauts, and stopped funding Dr Benjaminson.

In 2005 Dr van Eelen finally convinced the Dutch government to support research into test tube meat to the tune of €2 million.

A series of projects were set up. One explored how embryonic stem cells could be coaxed to become muscle cells, a second study investigated how muscle might be made to grow larger, and a third investigated what sort of growth medium would be optimal for creating steaks in the lab. That money recently ran out and the projects were scaled down.

Then, earlier this year, an anonymous philanthropist got in touch with Prof Post, who for a while worked with Dr van Eelen’s colleagues, and offered to pay him to make a hamburger out of Petri-dish pork. “It is likely the most expensive hamburger that we will ever see on this planet,” said Prof Post.

Cost of farming

Why go to all that trouble? Take a look at the carbon footprint of meat production, and the justification is clear: livestock farming accounts for around 18% of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions – greater than emissions due to transport.

The UN forecasts that world demand for meat will double by 2050, making that problem much worse. On top of this, around 80 per cent of all farmland is devoted to meat production, and cattle consume around 10 per cent of the world’s fresh water supplies. Farming for meat is a very costly process.

Then there is the animal welfare argument. Prof Post thinks that, deep down, most people feel the way we farm meat these days is less than satisfactory: “I think everybody knows subconsciously that the way we produce meat is not sustainable and isn’t friendly to animals.”

Echoing this sentiment, the animal rights organisation People for the Ethical Treatment of Animal (PETA) has announced a $1 million prize for the first company to bring synthetic meat to shops in at least six US states by 2016.

Harvest time

So how exactly is in vitro meat made? First stem cells have to be harvested from an animal. Researchers have suggested many different approaches, including enticing embryonic stem cells – the most versatile and potent of all stem cells, harvested from embryos – to differentiate into muscle cells.

This approach has the greatest potential, because one embryonic stem cell, correctly controlled, could potentially produce many tonnes of meat.

But Prof Post believes that controlling the differentiation of embryonic stem cells is too tricky. While we have figured out how to guide embryonic stem cell development in human, rat, mouse and rhesus monkey cells, controlling the embryonic stem cells from cows and pigs has proved much more difficult. “For some reason, we can’t do it and we don’t know why,” he said.

Instead, Prof Post is using cells called myosatellites – a form of muscle stem cell that is normally used by the body to repair damaged muscle.

Myosatellite cells can be extracted from a mature animal without killing it and have numerous advantages. Firstly, they are “one way” cells, in the sense that they can only become muscle cells.

Secondly, as the muscle cells proliferate they have an innate tendency to organise into muscle fibres. All that Prof Post has to do to form a strip of muscle is provide anchor points for the fibres to grow around, and the muscle forms by itself. “It’s a bit like magic,” he said.

Exercising meat

For muscle to develop properly, it has to be exercised regularly. This is why people who are bed-ridden for anything more than a few days start losing muscle bulk.

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