Frankenmeat: Growing a Burger in a Petri Dish

A colony of embryonic stem cells, from the H9 ...

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Stem cell science applications are almost unlimited

Using human stem cells to tackle human health issues remains controversial in the United States, but a team of Dutch researchers has found a potentially crowd-pleasing application of stem cell technology: growing a hamburger in a Petri dish. The full burger isn’t ready for the grill just yet, but the long-term consequences for the environment and human eating habits could be enormous.

According to an article in the Guardian, the researchers, led by Dr. Mark Post, have thus far “grown thin sheets of cow muscle measuring 3cm long, 1.5cm wide, and half a millimetre thick.” To go from this to a full burger the scientists will “take 3,000 pieces of muscle and a few hundred pieces of fatty tissue, that will be minced together and pressed into a patty.”

Is your stomach rumbling yet? Dr. Post acknowledges that the eating experience of the so-called Frankenburger might not approximate that of an honest-to-goodness chopped up cow, but insists that the technological process could be revolutionary. While the current procedure is estimated to cost about $317,000, the scientific hurdles have been cleared and the operation could scale up to reduce costs.

But what’s the advantage? The Worldwatch Institute reports that “livestock and their byproducts actually account for at least 32.6 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year, or 51 percent of annual worldwide GHG emissions.” That’s more greenhouse gases than are created by all transportation, even though cars generally soak up the public blame for pollution. With this statistic in mind, producing meat in a lab seems like a promising alternative to using up precious farmland and grain to feed massive herds of livestock, especially given that worldwide demand for meat is expected to skyrocket as the economies of China, India, and other developing nations continue to make strides.

This is the Floating University, though, so let’s get into the nitty gritty science of how to grow a hamburger in a test tube. According to the Guardian article,

Each piece of muscle is made by extracting stem cells from cow muscle tissue and growing them in containers in the laboratory. The cells are grown in a culture medium containing foetal calf serum, which contains scores of nutrients the cells need to grow.

The slivers of muscle grow between pieces of Velcro and flex and contract as they develop. To make more protein in the cells – and so improve the texture of the tissue – the scientists shock them with an electric current.

This makes the Frankeburger seem even more freakish, but the science and potential behind stem cells are staggering.

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The first lab-grown hamburger will cost $345,000

Macro shot of the Jr. Deluxe Burger from Sonic...

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How much would you pay for a hamburger?

How about US$345,000? No, it’s not wrapped in edible gold leaf and held together with a skewer made out of a diamond stick pin that you get to keep. It’s an ordinary burger that doesn’t include the bun, lettuce, pickles or onions. It isn’t even super-sized. This may seem like price gouging on a monumental scale, but it’s actually the cost price for this particular burger. That’s because even though it is a real hamburger made from real meat, it doesn’t come from a cow at all.

Dr. Mark Post, a vascular biologist at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands, is one of a handful of scientists around the world working on the problem of cultivating meat artificially in a laboratory. The idea is to find a way to create the meat without the animal by growing it directly. Speaking to the Reuters news agency, Dr. Post estimates that, if he succeeds, his first burger will cost a staggering $345,000, but when the technique is perfected and scaled up to industrial levels, economies of scale should kick in and make lab-grown beef (or pork or chicken or fish) as cheap, if not cheaper, than its four-legged counterpart. He also believes that the advantages of in vitro meat, as it is called, are such that it will go a long way toward alleviating world hunger and saving the environment.

It may even give the phrase “factory farming” a whole new meaning.

A long predicted dish

The idea of growing meat in a vat without the animal middle-creature has been around longer than many people realize. The most famous prediction of the coming of in vitro meat was from none other than Winston Churchill. During his “wilderness years” of the early 1930s when he was out of political favor, Churchill passed the time by writing and one essay penned for Popular Mechanics magazine in March 1932 dealt with predictions of what life would be like fifty years ahead in far off 1982. In this he wrote – “We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.”

Chicken heart

Growing a chicken leg bone and all wasn’t even a remote possibility in the real 1982, but Churchill did have some basis for his prediction that this would come about within a half century. He probably based it on the work of Dr. Alexis Carrel, a French surgeon and biologist working in New York City in the first half of the 20th century. There at the Rockefeller Institute of Medical Research, Dr. Carrel conducted a unique experiment when in 1912 he cultivated tissues from an embryo chicken heart. By constantly bathing it in a nutrient solution, Dr. Carrel was able to keep the heart tissue alive and growing until 1942, when it died after a lab assistant forgot to feed it.

The “chicken heart” (actually, just a bit of tissue suspended on silk gauze) was Carrel’s best known project and the heart was something of a minor celebrity with newspapers sending it birthday greetings every year. Carrel himself thought that the longevity of the heart pointed to the secret of immortality. Perhaps living cells freed from the burden of sustaining an entire organism could reproduce infinitely and live forever. This was in line with the thinking of the day and Carrel’s work seemed to prove it. If this was indeed the case, then supplying the animal protein needs of the world might be as simple as raising mushrooms.

Certainly the public seemed to think so, since stories in the popular press talked about the chicken heart as being a large mass of flesh that grew so much that it was forever in danger of bursting from its container and needing to be periodically trimmed to keep it in check. In their 1952 science fiction novel The Space Merchants, Frederick Pohl and C M Kornbluth described a future farm where Carrel’s chicken heart is grown into a lump of flesh weighing hundreds of tons and is serviced by butchers who trim off steaks from it with great flensing knives like those used by whalers. Radio author Arch Oebler took this a step further in his short radio play “Chicken Heart” where Carrel’s experiment breaks loose and devours the entire United States. Comedian Bill Cosby claimed in his stand-up routine that he found this story so frightening as a child that he smeared Jell-O on the floor and set fire to the couch to keep the monster at bay. He said his father’s reaction to this was for years after to call strangers into the house to see his “dumb kid”.

So why didn’t Carrel’s experiment lead to a world of chicken heart fast food franchises? It was simply because the experiment was indeed unique-literally. After Carrel died in 1944, many scientists tried to duplicate his experiment, but none succeeded. In fact, as more was understood about the nature of living tissue, it became clear that Carrel’s experiment should never have worked. Cells of the type Carrel used should only have reproduced a certain number of times and then die. They certainly shouldn’t have kept on growing for decades. No one is certain what happened, but one theory is that Carrel’s nutrient solution, which was derived from animal tissue, kept reintroducing fresh cells that replaced the ones that died. Whatever the truth was, the conclusion was that cultivating meat wasn’t as simple as first thought.

Still, the idea remained. In the 1970s, the New Scientist magazine ran a satirical column about the fictitious and ethically-challenged DREADCO corporation that allegedly experimented on new ways to cultivate meat, such as genetically engineering alligators with salamander DNA so their huge, meaty tails fell off when grabbed with huge tongs or taking an elephant’s trunk, hooking it up to a heart/lung machine and then hooking the other end to a machine that induced the trunk to grow by applying tension. The growing trunk would then be automatically wrapped in pastry and passed through an oven to produce a continuous stream of fresh, delicious elephant trunk pie. Meanwhile, on a more practical tack, food scientists in the wake of the food shortages after the Second World War often speculated on the possibility of manufacturing meat and NASA showed periodic interest in the idea as a way of feeding astronauts on extremely long space missions. In recent years, the animal rights organization PETA offered a $1 million prize for anyone who could come up with a commercially successful way of cultivating meat as a way to reduce livestock farming, which PETA regards as inhumane.

How to grow a steak

We hear so much about so many biomedical miracles – from mapping the thoughts in the human brain to transplanting entire cardiopulmonary systems – that we tend to think that growing meat in a lab must be easy. It isn’t expected to be hooked up to someone’s body. It just has to lie there and be cooked – preferably with a bit of rosemary and a dash of pepper. But, in fact, cultivating meat is in many ways as difficult as growing a transplant organ. In some very fundamental aspects, the two are identical. So difficult is the problem that it wasn’t until the development of cloning and stem cell research that anyone took the idea of growing a steak seriously.

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Growing Meat in the Lab

Scientists Initiate Action Plan to Advance Cultured Meat

Late last week, an international group of scientists took a step closer to their goal to produce cultured meat. They agreed on important common positions about how to bring the research forward during a workshop in Gothenburg, Sweden, arranged by Chalmers University of Technology and the European Science Foundation.

Many technology components are now coming into place in order to realize the concept of cultured meat. This includes a cell source that is possible to use, several alternative processes to turn these cells into muscle cells for meat, and nutrients free of animal components which can be produced from sunlight and carbon dioxide.

In addition, a life cycle assessment of cultured meat compared to traditionally produced meat was recently published. It shows that the environmental benefits of cultured meat are very large (see attached fact sheet). For example, compared to the rearing of cattle, cultured meat would entail dramatic reductions of greenhouse gas emissions, land use and water use.

Despite these obvious advantages, the area is still very poorly funded. The interdisciplinary group of scientists has decided to form a community to try to attract more funding and to create a faster development in the area of cultured meat. During the workshop last week, they also reached consensus about important issues in the research field. For instance, the nutrients for growing the cells for meat must be produced with renewable energy and without animal products. The best source for this is to use a photosynthetic organism, such as blue-green algae.

Many important decisions remain about how to proceed in the research and development on cultured meat, and the scientists now feel that it is time to spread the discussion outside the research community.

“We want to invite all stakeholders into discussions to tackle these issues and identify in which directions to go,” says Julie Gold, associate professor in biological physics at Chalmers, and one of the convenors of the workshop. “To date, there are only limited dedicated research activities in cultured meat. To move forward, research activities have to increase substantially.”

The workshop in Sweden engaged an interdisciplinary group of 25 scientists who all have special interest in cultured meat. Some of them have specialties in tissue engineering, stem cells and food technology. Others are environmental scientists, ethicists, social scientists and economists. All of these areas have been discussed during the workshop. The result is encouraging regarding the possibility to actually be able to supply consumers with cultivated meat in the future, and the scientists have not found any crucial arguments against cultured meat.

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Lab-Grown Meat Would Cut Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Save Energy

Public domain photograph of various meats. (Be...

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Meat grown using tissue engineering techniques, so-called ‘cultured meat’, would generate up to 96% lower greenhouse gas emissions than conventionally produced meat, according to a new study.

The analysis, carried out by scientists from Oxford University and the University of Amsterdam, also estimates that cultured meat would require 7-45% less energy to produce than the same volume of pork, sheep or beef. It would require more energy to produce than poultry but only a fraction of the land area and water needed to rear chickens.

A report of the team’s research is published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

‘What our study found was that the environmental impacts of cultured meat could be substantially lower than those of meat produced in the conventional way,’ said Hanna Tuomisto of Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, who led the research. ‘Cultured meat could potentially be produced with up to 96% lower greenhouse gas emissions, 45% less energy, 99% lower land use, and 96% lower water use than conventional meat.’

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