“Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.”
If you’re a Star Trek fan, you’ll know that’s the favorite beverage of Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the USS Enterprise. But when Captain Picard requests his tea…or anything else…an army of robots doesn’t scuttle around boiling water, fetching tea bags, spooning out sugar and taking milk out of the fridge. The concept in Star Trek, like in a lot of science fiction, involves synthesis of food at the molecular level. In other words, if you want a banana split, a machine will pull together the base elements required (hydrogen, calcium and hot-fudgium) and assemble them into the correct molecules and put them all together in the right order to create a banana split. All before you’ve even finished drooling over the idea of the sundae.
Essentially, it’s a handy science fiction plot device that explains how travelers of the future can cross interstellar distances and not run out of food or be required to carry a hold full of farm animals and acres of grain and hydroponic vegetable and fruit crops.
Food synthesis, however, isn’t just the stuff of science fiction, it’s the stuff of science (though perhaps not assembly from the molecular level). While NASA carries on research for the feasibility of a manned mission to Mars sometime this century, it has a number of challenges to overcome. For starters, how to protect astronauts against deadly cosmic radiation. Second, how to protect the hull of a spacecraft against tiny meteoroids hurtling through space at about 20,000 miles per hour. A space rock the size of a pebble would end a trip to Mars in a fraction of the time it would take an astronaut to say, “Hey, what was that thump?” But another huge hurdle to overcome is the food. If just the travel time alone to and from Mars would take two and a half years (not counting time on the planet for scientific research and exploration), how do you feed a half-dozen or so people with pre-packaged food? Would anyone be willing to eat three-year-old meat or fruit, even if it has been vacuum-packed, for the sake of science?
A vascular biologist at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands is developing a solution: not just for gourmand astronauts unwilling to eat stale Pop Tarts and freeze-dried beef jerky for three years, but for the health of Planet Earth and the consciences of its animal-lovers.
Dr. Mark Post plans to make a burger.
Big deal, you might say. I made one of those last night. But Dr. Post plans to make a meat burger that didn’t start out mooing on a dusty prairie somewhere. While the end product will be meat, it won’t ever have been a cow, a bird, a fish or even a soybean. Try that in your kitchen.
“The first one will be a proof of concept, just to show it’s possible,” Dr. Post recently told Reuters in a phone interview from his lab in Maastricht. “I believe I can do this in the coming year.”
Dr. Post’s process begins with muscle stem cells called “myosatellites” sourced from leftover meat and other animal product scraps from slaughterhouses (though there is apparently no reason why the stem cells could not be initially grown from minimal biopsies from living animals). Researchers would use electric shocks to stimulate growth and replication, then “nurture” these stem cells and “feed” them a diet of special nutrients: sugars, amino acids, lipids, minerals and other things that will help the stem cells grow into the desired finished product. Dr. Post’s research thus far has produced whitish, transparent strips about an inch long and a fraction of an inch wide. Observers say they look a little bit like the flesh of sea scallops. The idea is to collect about 3,000 of these strips in layers, add a little lab-grown fat for taste, and voilà…the world’s first synthesized burger. (Hold the onions and pass the ketchup!)
Obviously, there are still a number of challenges to overcome. For starters, the end product is transparent white – not a very appetizing shade – because the “flesh” produced lacks any blood to give it color as with real meat.
“It’s white because there’s no blood in it, and very little myoglobin, the iron-bearing protein,” said Dr. Post. “We are looking at ways to build up the myoglobin content to give it color.”
It’s also rather limp and droopy since it never came from an animal that moved and developed muscle tone. Dr. Post thinks there could be a way around the latter restriction: by literally stretching the strips of synthesized flesh between Velcro tabs provide resistance and help the “meat” develop a little tensile strength, and some rigidity to go with it.
So what’s the point, you might ask?
Commercial meat cultivation is not a green process. It’s a dirty, chemical-laden, carbon-intensive, ethically questionable (in most cases), bacteria-filled and land- and water-gobbling industry. It’s also inefficient: Dr. Post says that for every gram of meat produced, about seven grams of crops must be cultivated to support the meat’s production. While once upon a time, only Western nations ate copious amounts of meat from farmed livestock with the rest of the world subsisting on rice, grains, fruits, vegetables and wild fish, the world’s taste for meat is skyrocketing as countries like China and India build more wealth and greater demand for a chicken in every pot, so to speak. The World Health Organization (WHO) has predicted that global annual meat production will rise from 218 million tons in the late 1990s to 376 million tons by 2030. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization lays an enormous chunk of blame for climate change (about 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, according to this study), air pollution, land degradation, energy use, deforestation and biodiversity decline on meat cultivation. It’s simple: raising livestock uses an enormous amount of land and resources, and we’re running out of both if we’re to feed the world.
“Current livestock meat production is just not sustainable,” Dr. Post told Reuters. “Not from an ecological point of view, and neither from a volume point of view. Right now we are using more than 50 percent of all our agricultural land for livestock. It’s simple maths. We have to come up with alternatives.”
Research has suggested that meat synthesis could put meat into the world’s markets using 35 to 60 percent less energy and emitting 80 to 95 percent less greenhouse gas. It would also practically eliminate the land currently needed for traditional meat cultivation.
Another benefit to being able to custom-grow meat in a lab is that it can be tweaked to have the best qualities of meat – protein, taste and HDL, or “good” cholesterol – with the worst parts left out, such as LDS “bad” cholesterol. It would also eliminate the great risk of contamination inherent in meat production on a global scale: charmers such as worms, E. coli, hoof-and-mouth and Creutzfeldt-Jakob (so-called “mad cow”) diseases.
Dr. Post is not the first to tinker with synthesized meat, though he may be the first to produce a real end-product if he is successful next year. A group called New Harvest led by Vladimir Mironov, an assistant professor of cell biology at the Medical University of South Carolina, made the news several years ago with its experiments in lab-cultured in-vitro chicken tissue (grown in sheets and dubbed by the press “shmeat”). The group is currently pursuing a workable production process to create large quantities of meat products grown from culture.
The idea of lab-grown meat is older than we might think: in an essay he wrote for a 1932 Popular Mechanics feature called “Fifty Years Hence,” Winston Churchill predicted, “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.”
Obviously, we didn’t get there by 1982. Research on achieving something so monumental takes time. One major restriction, which the blogosphere has been quick to point out, is cost. Once created, Dr. Post’s burger will cost about $345,000. (Post’s research is financed by both the Dutch government and a private investor.) But obviously, the first steps in any research are inefficient and pricey, and the point of making a start is to find a way to make the process cost-effective and feasible. Additionally, many critics have wondered whether the world will embrace lab-grown meat. Certainly not next year or even next decade, but as the worldwide demand for meat becomes more unsustainable, ultimately people may have a choice between lab-grown meat or going vegan.
And while the price of lab-cultivated meat will eventually decline, it’s important to remember that the prices of traditionally farmed meat are already on their way up and may soon reach the point where lower and middle-class families will not be able to afford it except on special occasions. Beef, always expensive in Japan, which has too little suitable land for cattle farming, has reached sky-high prices, particularly in the aftermath of the earthquake and resulting tsunami earlier this year that led to Japan’s worst nuclear disaster in history. In the United States, beef costs have shot up as much as 20 percent in the last two years thanks to soaring commodity prices. As the nations of the world strive to cap the amount of carbon emissions they are responsible for, increases in meat cultivation with be decidedly counter-productive to these goals.
As a result, it’s hardly a wonder that the research of Dr. Post and others is piquing interest. Obviously, the option of purchasing a lab-grown Christmas turkey is still more than a few holiday seasons away, but if researchers are successful, they will help solve one of the Earth’s most urgent environmental problems.
At least one advocacy groups is all over this breakthrough and is even willing to put a little cash up for it. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) released a statement earlier this year proclaiming, “Scientists around the world are researching or seeking the funds to research ways to produce meat in the laboratory—without killing any animals. In vitro meat…would mimic flesh and could be cooked and eaten. Some promising steps have been made toward this technology, but we’re still several years away from having in vitro meat be available to the general public.” How will PETA help the research along? The group has put up a $1 million “reward” to the first researchers that develop and bring to market a synthesized meat product. (Many researchers point out that PETA is jumping the gun somewhat, expecting a synthesized meat product that is “indistinguishable from the real thing” by 2012. Science doesn’t work quite that fast.)
An additional bonus to the type of researcher that Dr. Post and others are doing is that it may correspond directly with – and possibly provide breakthroughs for – parallel research in which scientists test the feasibility of growing human organs from stem cells for the purpose of transplantation without the need for donor organs.
So the big question is…has Dr. Post tasted his creation yet? Not thus far, he says, though a Russian reporter who visited his lab recently was brave
enough to sample some of the translucent “meat” strips. He proclaimed it not very tasty, a limitation that Dr. Post acknowledges but says he will be able to solve in the future by synthesizing some of the elements that make meat tasty: blood and fat, for starters.
“The idea is that since we are now producing it in the lab, we can play with all these variables and we can eventually hopefully turn it in a way that produces healthier meat,” said Dr. Post. “Whereas in a cow or a pig, you have very limited variables to play with.” (See a BBC video interview with Dr. Post here.)
One big reaction to the news of Dr. Post’s work is a number of people proclaiming they would never eat lab-grown meat. If it came down to a choice of a meatless diet or lab-grown meat that was indistinguishable from the real thing, chances are good that our initial “Ugh, gross!” reaction would largely disappear.
After all, when Americans were first introduced to sushi 30 or so years ago, most of us said the same thing: “Ugh, gross!” Now we eat so much of the stuff that we’ve put several of the world’s tastier fish species into the endangered category and scientists have warned us to slow down lest we overdose on the mercury that shows up in high concentrations in many larger ocean fish such as tuna.
It would seem that “Ewww, yucky!” is a relative concept.