February 20, 2012
World’s First Lab-Engineered Burger Just Months Away
A team of privately funded Dutch researchers have reached a benchmark in the science of bioengineering. Using only stem cells, they´ve managed to grow a strip of muscle tissue in a Petri dish with the aim of eventually developing techniques for the mass production of eco-friendly lab-engineered meat.
By October of this year, Dr. Mark post of Maastricht University hopes to have world-renowned chef Heston Blumenthal of England´s famous Fat Duck restaurant cook-up the world´s first lab-engineered hamburger for an as yet unannounced celebrity taste-tester.
At a total production cost of roughly $320,000, it promises to be the most expensive hamburger ever created.
The research has been sponsored by a single anonymous donor who hopes that the project will pave the way for a more environmentally sustainable approach to meat production, one that cuts down on the enormous resources required in raising cattle while simultaneously the greenhouse gas emissions that result from it.
A fact seldom mentioned in the discussion on global warming is the significant role played by the world´s livestock population in releasing methane gas into the atmosphere–a greenhouse gas that´s some 20 times more harmful to than the carbon dioxide released from burning fossil fuels.
And with the inhabitants of up-and-coming countries like China quickly developing a taste for the luxuries enjoyed by their western counterparts, many fear that meat will become an increasingly expensive item available to an ever smaller percentage of the population.
“Meat demand is going to double in the next 40 years and right now we are using 70% of all our agricultural capacity to grow meat through livestock,” explained Dr. Post in a recent news conference.
“You can easily calculate that we need alternatives. If you don´t do anything meat will become a luxury food and be very, very expensive.”
Post explained that his team focused their research specifically on growing artificial beef because cattle require more resources per pound of meat than almost any other commercially raised livestock.
“Cows and pigs have an efficiency rate of about 15%, which is pretty inefficient. Chickens are more efficient and fish even more,” he explained to Ian Sample of The Guardian newspaper.
“If we can raise the efficiency from 15% to 50% it would be a tremendous leap forward.”
At the moment, the lab production of beef is still a long and grueling process. Using their current technique, Post´s team individually grew small sheets of muscle tissue, each 1.2 inches long, 0.6 inches wide and 0.02 inches thick. To make just a single burger, the team will have to combine some 3,000 of these sheets together with a few hundred sheets of similarly grown fatty tissue.
Moreover, Post concedes that they´re not yet sure how the meat will taste.
Still, like early computers that required entire rooms full of machines just to make simple computations, this method of meat production is still in its earliest phase. With the speed at which technology develops today, Post believes it entirely plausible that a few more years of research could make their current techniques thousands of times more efficient.
“I´d estimate that we could see mass production in another 10 to 20 years,” he told Sample.
At the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Vancouver last week, Post noted that the significance of their burger would be largely symbolic, a “proof of concept.” What it shows, he told an audience of his fellow scientists, is that “with in-vitro methods, out of stem cells we can make a product that looks like and feels and hopefully tastes like meat.”
In addition to the environmentally friendly features of Petri-dish meat (which will, by the way, require some brilliant marketing to sell), it also has the potential to provide significant health advantages. Because the production of the meat is closely controlled at each stage, the scientists speculate that it would be relatively easy to develop meat with additional, targeted health benefits, such as lower levels of saturated fats and higher levels of heart-healthy polyunsaturated fatty acids.
Moreover, the potential to experiment with previously unfamiliar meats is essentially limitless, giving even the most adventurous palettes something to fantasize about.
“We could make panda meat, I´m sure we could,” said Post.
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