Lab-Grown Burger To Be Served In Six Months

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Muscle cells taken from a cow are placed in a special nutrient mixture that promotes growth. Researchers hope to combine the cultured tissue into a hamburger sometime this fall.

A number of laboratories around the world are trying to grow meat in a Petri dish. So far we’ve heard about clumps of cells grown from stem cells with the hope that those cells will one day grow into a full-sized, grill-ready chicken fillet or hamburger. Now one researcher says the time to fire up the propane is fast approaching. Researcher Mark Post announced to his in vitro meat producing colleagues that his lab will have a hamburger fit for consumption sometime this fall.

Did you say you wanted cheese on that?

Post made the announcement a few weeks ago at the annual meeting for the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Vancouver. He said the lab is still growing the small slabs of cow skeletal muscle, but by the fall they’ll have enough tissue to piece them together into a hamburger.

Cultured meat begins with muscle cells taken from the rear of a cow for sirloin steak, for instance, or from the area surrounding a pig’s spine for growing pork chops. The cells are then placed in a nutrient mixture that helps them to proliferate. A biodegradable scaffold guides the cells as they grow together to eventually form muscle tissue. Making a hamburger requires joining these pieces of tissue into a coherent whole.

It’s unclear how long the lab has been growing their bits of burger, but given the amount of time needed to make just one hamburger we’re pretty much guaranteed a long wait before sleeves of artificially grown patties show up at the supermarket. Even if taste and nutritional value is comparable to that of normal burgers, we’re still probably years away from being able to grow cultured meat cost-effectively and in amounts large enough to make an impact on world consumption. Post’s hamburger is funded to the tune of 250,000 euros from an anonymous private investor.

But when we do, we may find ourselves at the start of a food revolution.

Late last year the Earth’s population reached 7 billion. By 2050, that number’s expected to reach 9 billion. How to feed so many people, especially countries like the US which consume twice the global average?

Population growth makes it ever more imperative to find more efficient - and more humane - ways to feed our love for meat.

In 1961 the world’s total meat supply was 71 million tons. By 2007 we were gorging more than twice that per capita and the supply had reached 284 million tons. And even though the population will increase by about a third by 2050, the world’s total meat consumption is expected to double in the same amount of time. Americans account for about 5 percent of the world’s population but eat about 15 percent of its total meat. Nearly 10 billion animals are grown and killed for food in the US each year (New York Times writer Mark Bittman specifies that the word “raise” would be incorrect to describe what happens to animals at factory farms). According to these figures, every year about 67 billion animals are slaughtered for meat worldwide.

It takes resources to sustain such prodigious numbers. Livestock production is estimated to use up 30 percent for the world’s ice-free land and produce almost a fifth of the world’s greenhouse gases, more than the amount produced by global transportation.

Needless to say, growing cultured meat in a lab would be a desirable alternative to factory farms. Not only is treating the animals more ethically and reducing carbon emissions desirable, but according to Post, cows and pigs are the least efficient among all livestock to convert to food with a bioconversion efficiency of 15 percent. PETA, obviously in favor of not killing animals for food, is encouraging scientists by offering $1 million to anyone able to bring in vitro chicken meat to the market.

Hopefully when Post’s hamburger is ready his lab will have better luck than Vladimir Mironov whose administrative run-ins kept him from a taste test last year. And if the faux burger turns out to be just as good as the real thing, overcoming the technological hurdles to producing them in a cost-effective way will be a delicious challenge I hope the whole field can’t resist.

[image credits: Reuters and National Geographic]
image 1: Mark Post
image 2: population

Discussion — 16 Responses

  • singup February 28, 2012 on 4:36 pm

    Hmmmm, More and More Humans, but need more meat. Hmmmm, how could we balance that out?

    And what meat product would be most similar to the nutrient requirements humans need? We’re not cows, pigs, or cats. Nutrient wise, ideally, it would be something more …”Humanish”…

    Fortunately most of our future troubles and solutions were figured out by Charlton Heston movies. :-)

    I’m still pissed at believing the hype that transfat Margarine would be better for you than Butter! For health reasons, the only “human made” meat I’ll be eating would be another human. Strictly for dietary / health reasons.

  • arpad February 29, 2012 on 4:30 am

    There does seem to be shockingly quick action on this technology. I believe PETA announced their prize only two years ago and while a million bucks is a pretty fair amount of money for an individual it’s nowhere near enough to motivate the sort of research and development that’s necessary to bring the technology to even this stage.

    Maybe we could get a slightly deeper dive on what’s brought things along this fast?

    We’ve got the greenie-weenies desperately trying to shove electric cars, windmills and solar power down our throats yet in terms of reducing humanities environmental footprint this technology might be substantially more effective. After all, if you can lab-grow a hamburger, and the technology scales up to commerical levels, you can also factory-grow chicken, pork, shrimp and salmon.

    • turtles_allthewaydown arpad March 8, 2012 on 1:52 pm

      arpad – I get the idea you don’t like being dragged into the 21st century. Our reliance on petroleum and coal is raising the incidence of respiratory problems, including asthma; it’s sending vast amounts of money from developed nations to unstable and unfriendly countries; it’s 50% of our trade deficit; and most worrisome it’s raising the acidification of the oceans which can be a big problem for our food supply (and tourism for many countries that rely heavily on it). And there’s that niggling little thing called global warming.

      But your other point is right – people focus on oil consumption and forget about how our direct changes to the landscape (prairies and forest used for seasonal crops or denuded entirely) have affected the world.

  • Fons Jena March 1, 2012 on 1:11 pm

    Always talking about being with so many people and about the problems it brings but never, never do we talk about the real problem itself. They teached me to solve a problem by tackling it by its roots and that is worldwide birth control.

    I really hope humanity will have a hard time in the not so distant future cause we gotta pay for our shortsightedness.

    We are with too many.

  • PRiME March 31, 2012 on 1:45 am

    I look forward to the day we can have such meats, I have friends whom would vomit compulsively at the thought but really when you stop and think about the ENTIRE meat production process. It becomes very clear that meat farming without the ANIMAL component is the most logical course of action.

    It will of cause need to be clinically and genetically safe to consume.