lab-grown meat from stem cells
May 21, 2014

In Vitro Techniques Could Produce Environmentally Friendly Meat Products

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

The same scientific advances that have made it possible to cultivate stem cells into laboratory-grown organs could one day be used to develop eco-friendly meat products, according to new research appearing in the latest edition of the journal Trends in Biotechnology.

According to researchers from Wageningen University in The Netherlands, producing in vitro meat in an animal-cell cultivation process is “a technically feasible alternative lacking these disadvantages, provided that an animal-component-free growth medium can be developed. Small-scale production looks particularly promising, not only technologically but also for societal acceptance. Economic feasibility, however, emerges as the real obstacle.”

Provided a cost-effective way to develop cultured meat can be discovered, the researchers explain that it would provide a source of meat that is both ethical and greener, limiting pollution and energy consumption while also preventing the suffering experienced by animals as part of the factory farming industry. Ultimately, they hope that every town and community could be home to its own small-scale cultured meat production facility.

“We believe that cultured meat is part of the future,” explained study author Cor van der Weele. “Other parts of the future are partly substituting meat with vegetarian products, keeping fewer animals in better circumstances, perhaps eating insects, etc. This discussion is certainly part of the future in that it is part of the search for a 'protein transition.' It is highly effective in stimulating a growing awareness and discussion of the problems of meat production and consumption.”

She and coauthor Johannes Tramper noted that the rising demand levels for meat are unsustainable in terms of environmental pollution and energy usage. Van der Weele explained that she initially learned about cultured meat in 2004, when frog steaks were served by a French museum – all while the amphibian that donated the cells for the culinary feast watched on.

Scientists have already proven that meat can be made from stem cells. In 2013, Maastricht University Prof. Mark Post created and consumed a lab-grown burger created using muscle cells taken from a cow. Those cells were cultured in a lab and placed in a nutrient solution to stimulate muscle tissue growth.

The tissue is grown by placing cells in a cylindrical tube around a hub of gel, and then grown into small strands of meat. As many as 20,000 strands are required to create a five-ounce burger, and according to Post, the muscle cells have not been altered in any way. He explained that this beef could potentially provide “the answers to major problems that the world faces,” but for it to succeed, it needs to “feel and hopefully taste like the real thing.”

Post and his colleagues began growing pork in laboratory environments in 2006 as part of the In-vitro Meat Consortium, a group publicly funded Dutch research institutions conducting cultured meat-related experiments. Other nations have been pursuing similar research, including a team of US researchers who were funded by NASA and set out to find a way to allow astronauts to grow their own meat in space.

In their new study, van der Weele and Tramper outline a manufacturing process that processes a vial of cells taken from a cell bank into a pressed minced-meat cake. They emphasize that there will be some difficulties with maintaining a continuous stem cell line, and making the finished meat product cheaper than similar products manufactured the traditional way. Nonetheless, they believe that the process has potential.

“Cultured meat has great moral promise,” the authors wrote. “Worries about its unnaturalness might be met through small-scale production methods that allow close contact with cell-donor animals, thereby reversing feelings of alienation. From a technological perspective, 'village-scale' production is also a promising option.”

Image 2 (below): The left column shows the stepwise increase in cell-culture volume, starting with a vial from the working cell bank (note that a new working cell bank is made from a vial from the master cell bank). Exponentially growing cells from each step serve, after growing to a certain cell density, as the inoculum of the next culture vessel, which is an order of magnitude larger. The final bioreactor starts only partially filled and is fed with sterile medium at such a rate that the cells grow further under optimal conditions. When the bioreactor is full and the desired cell density is reached, the protein-crosslinking enzyme transglutaminase and binding protein are added to induce the formation of easily settling aggregates of cells, which quickly settle when stirring is stopped (bottom right). The harvested cells are pressed and the cake is extruded into retailer- and/or consumer-size portions of minced meat (right column). Credit: Trends in Biotechnology, van der Weele et al.