You wouldn’t normally expect to find a thick red steak quietly pulsating in an oversized Petri dish inside a laboratory. But such is the hype around the team scheduled to produce the world’s first lab-grown cut of meat this October that I can’t help but imagine it. The research being done by bioengineer Dr Mark Post at Maastricht University in the Netherlands has provoked global headlines about “test tube meat” and fierce ethical and scientific debate. Getting access to his laboratory is about as exciting as it gets in the world of food engineering.
But when I arrive, the home of in vitro meat is quiet – no research assistants racing to turn out joints of beef, chicken or lamb. Instead, Post slowly opens the door to what looks like a large fridge, or a bioreactor. Within lie row upon row of tiny Petri dishes in which float minute fibres of almost transparent meat. I find it rather deflating but Post is excited. “I’ll need about 3,000 pellets of meat to make a hamburger,” he says.
The prospect of being able to create our own meat could herald a food revolution. Humanity’s meat consumption is projected to double in the next 40 years, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation. Given that 70 per cent of agricultural land is already used for meat production, this could precipitate a food crisis of unimaginable proportions. And that’s not even considering the looming environmental impact as more cows and less rainforest accelerate climate change.
The idea of creating our own meat has a long history. In 1931, Winston Churchill wrote in the Strand Magazine that separate parts of an animal would be grown in a lab in the future to “escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing”. And when it started experiments in the 1990s, Nasa became preoccupied with producing a non-perishable meat for its astronauts – it managed to grow goldfish cells in 2002.
One of the pioneers of lab meat is Willem van Eelen, a Dutch doctor who has pursued the vision since the 1950s and was granted a patent for producing meat from stem cells in 1999. It took him another five years to persuade the Dutch government to fund a study, in which Post took part. The project examined the most effective growth medium for cells to produce meat, how muscles might be encouraged to expand and the question of multiplying stem cells. It was wound up four years later when it ran out of money amid concerns that the public would not touch any lab-produced meat.
But some experts continue to believe that in vitro meat is a real and necessary solution. A report published last July in the journal Environmental Science & Technology found that lab meat can produce up to 96 per cent lower greenhouse gas emissions than its conventional equivalent. Scientists at the universities of Oxford and Amsterdam found it would also take between 7 per cent and 45 per cent less energy to produce than the same volume of pork, sheep or beef, as well as requiring 99 per cent less land use.
This view is backed up by Dr Nicholas Genovese, a visiting scholar at the University of Missouri, who is studying the stem cell biology of agriculturally important animal species. Genovese believes there is a strong economic imperative to commercialise lab meat and convened a conference of experts on the subject. “A recently published study estimated the US domestic costs of food-borne illness at more than $50bn per year. The majority of common meat products (ground beef, ground turkey, pork chops, chicken breast) exhibit bacterial contamination,” he says. Lab meat produced in aseptic conditions would “neither harbour nor transmit pathogens or emerging infectious diseases”.
There is, then, a lot riding on this research. Yet even Post admits that the world’s first lab-grown hamburger will not be available in the shops for years. He stipulates two conditions that lab meat needs to have in order for it to be considered meat. “One is that the process needs to be efficient, more efficient than in a cow or a pig, because otherwise there’s no point. And the second thing is that it needs to mimic meat exactly in taste and texture.”
The wafer-thin and almost translucent strips in the bioreactor are still a long way off. They measure only about 3cm x 1.5cm, yet Post needs about five million cells to produce just one of these fibres of meat. “So for a hamburger, you would need somewhere around a hundred million cells.”
Post is working on creating a proof of concept that he hopes will help loosen the purse strings of industry and governments. Many have so far been reluctant to invest, citing the “yuck factor” – or potentially sceptical public reaction – as a reason. “I see that proof of concept just as a sort of a very humble start of something that needs to be developed. Most of those developments, I feel, are of a technical nature … It’s just a matter of time and labour, and resources, of course,” he says.
Finding funding is difficult. One of the biggest incentives so far comes from Peta, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which has offered $1m for the world’s first lab-grown chicken meat. The deadline is June. The organisation gave a research grant to Genovese in 2006 to work in the lab of expert Vladimir Mironov at the University of South Carolina. Mironov’s lab has since been shut down, but Genovese is continuing to research at the University of Missouri, establishing “seed stock” sources of cells for cultivation of meat in vitro.
Post is producing beef, not chicken, and although he hopes Peta will support him anyway, he is unlikely to win. Indeed Peta founder Ingrid Newkirk believes there are others with “something up their sleeves”. But Post has enjoyed some funding success already from an anonymous American backer who will be unveiled this October. “He can fund this without blinking,” Post says. “He’s a technology guy, so he sees this as a life-transforming technology … he doesn’t eat a whole lot of meat.”
The backer’s wealth will be necessary. “That first hamburger will cost €250,000,” says Post. “And two technicians will spend a year building that thing. Lots of materials will go in it. Lots of energy will be used or misused or whatever to create it. So it’s not going to be efficient. Not even remotely efficient,” he says, raising his hands and dropping them.
The main barrier to commercialising lab meat lies in the inability to multiply embryonic stem cells. Original research into van Eelen’s 2004 Dutch Ministry of Agriculture-funded research project isolated foetal stem cells but they died after dividing only a few times.
Post, however, grows the meat using adult muscular stem cells, or progenitor cells, that exist in muscles to aid repair. These can be harvested direct from the animal and, unlike embryonic stem cells, have the capacity to turn into skeletal muscle cells, or protein, automatically. The drawback is that while they divide more often than foetal stem cells, they don’t divide indefinitely. “Well, right now we can go to about 20 or 30 replications. So that means that from one cell, with 20, you get a million cells, right, from one cell,” Post tells me.
It is this inability to replicate indefinitely that makes the strips of meat in Post’s lab so tiny. Post is trying various fixes. Individual cells can bulk up under the right conditions and his research team has developed a way of “training” the muscle cells through electrical stimulation, a method which uses a large amount of energy. This electrical charge is a form of exercise. “Muscles work – and to work they produce more protein. We all know that. They bulk up and they produce more protein. So we did a couple of tests on how to get them to work,” he says.
But despite the electrical stimulation, Post discovered that the cells weren’t bulking up enough. He found another solution – the thin slivers of meat expand by growing between two anchor points: “They reorganise the tissue themselves and start to build up tension between those anchor points.” So the team developed elastic anchor points using Velcro. Recently Post had the idea of turning the strips of meat into doughnut shapes. “We are now experimenting with this shape, so that they’ll attach to themselves.” he says.
But there is still criticism within the scientific community about Post’s approach. Henk Haagsman from the University of Utrecht and lead scientist on the original Dutch research project believes Post will eventually have to go back to the drawing board and work out how to develop embryonic stem cells if he wants to commercialise lab meat.
“Using adult stem cells, you make only mono-layers of cells,” says Haagsman. “You can make maybe a few layers, but if you make too many layers they cannot breathe and nutrients will not reach the cells, you cannot make thick layers.” And then he adds: “It is a dangerous idea to make animal protein from culture because if he doesn’t succeed, there will be a backlash against cultivating meat in the laboratory … it is a risk.”
Philosopher and ethicist Dr Robert Sparrow, of Monash University, Australia, doesn’t believe lab meat will reduce our over-consumption of “real” meat. “This idea is a fantasy promoted by scientists who neglect the social and emotional meaning of food,” Sparrow says. “We need to look at restoring local diversity in food production and adapting more ecologically well-founded methods of farming.”
Leaving aside the questions of environment and ethics, there is also the problem of taste. Jeff Wood at the University of Bristol says that taste is the most difficult characteristic to mimic due to the diet of the animal, the age and the way it is cooked. He thinks meat-like tastes produced in the lab will be good enough for dishes with sauces, such as minced beef in spaghetti bolognese, but “it will be more difficult to create taste substitutes for lamb chops or sirloin steaks.” Some individuals are extremely good at detecting the subtle differences in the taste of meat “just as wine tasters are at recognising particular wines,” he says.
Post has made the taste factor a priority. “Every consumer knows that fat contributes quite a bit to the taste and the juiciness of the meat, and we are creating this now,” he says. He has launched two new projects to cultivate fat tissue and increase the amount of myoglobin in meat. Myoglobin is by far the biggest iron carrier in muscle, which Post says is an important component of the taste. He can increase this by starving the cells of oxygen during culturing, so they will overcompensate later on, or by feeding them other stimuli, such as caffeine, or exercising the meat more often. He won’t reveal other experiments that he is undertaking to mimic the flavour of meat. “I’m still a bit secretive about that. As far as I know, this is unexplored territory.”
There remains another dilemma: how to cook it. Post has employed a food technologist to find out what happens when his lab-grown hamburger is introduced to heat. “We want to know whether it will congeal to a patty or whether it will fall apart, whether we need a glue to keep it together or …” he trails off. If he succeeds in cooking it, the law still stands in his way. “There are a number of potential legal issues. One is that it’s not food, so you’re not allowed to feed anybody this stuff and then you can get fined, which is €1,000 here in the Netherlands. But, who cares?”
This October, a famous – and still to be revealed – chef will prepare the hamburger in front of the world’s media. A lot of people will be watching closely. If Post manages to produce a hamburger that looks and tastes like the real thing, then the project’s US backer may not be the only person keen to fund it through to our supermarket shelves. And if everything goes to plan, we all might one day ponder how we want our lab steak cooked: raw, medium or well-done.
William Little is a science writer and author of ‘The Psychic Tourist’ (Icon Books)