What does artificial meat taste like? Our chances of learning the answer anytime soon look dismal. Vladimir Mironov at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) has been developing bio-engineered meat for years. He recently told the Associated Foreign Press that he planned on offering one of the first taste tests for his creations this August at a European Science Foundation workshop in Sweden! The chances that he’ll actually be able to follow through on that proposal, however, looks pretty slim. Why? MUSC recently suspended Mironov and other members of his team following accusations of “unacceptable behavior” – apparently unrelated to his faux meat dreams. This is just the latest in a roller coaster history for Mironov’s lab grown animal muscle. Will we ever know if his Charleston-engineered-meat (aka “Charlem”) tastes as good as the real thing? Hopefully yes, but that day is probably not going to come this August.
Over the past decade, Mironov has developed techniques for taking myoblasts (cells which later form muscle), bathing them in fetal bovine serum, and growing them in a bioreactor. There has been success with tissue from turkeys, chickens, lambs, pigs, and cows. Mironov and his close collaborator Nicholas Genovese were recently interviewed by Rob Carli for the AFP about the progress they’ve made with Charlem. Their dream is that such in vitro meat will one day be able to be produced on a large scale. The same way we have wineries and breweries we will have ‘carneries’ that grow artificial meat for mass consumption. At the moment liver cells are actually the easiest ‘meat’ to culture in the lab, which means that the taste test that Mironov planned to give to fellow researchers in Sweden could have been a form of foie gras.
Around February 11th, however, the path to the first faux pâté hit a pitfall. MUSC suspsended Mironov, Genovese and others on the artificial meat team. According to the Post and Courier, the suspension was due to comments Mironov made to a USC administrator. The account in the Post and Courier reads like a soap opera: voluntary psychiatric evaluations, intimidating suggestions to retain legal counsel, escorts by security guards from laboratories. There is little to no indication that any of this is a result of work on the Charlem, it’s probably stemming from a “more important” $20 million tissue biofabrication for human organs project that Mironov was set to lead. Still, the effect on Charlem doesn’t look good. Genovese told a local ABC news affiliate that their work would go on with or without MUSC, but I don’t think you can see this as anything but a set back.
In fact, it’s one in a long history of travails for Mironov and his in vitro meat. Funding has been a roller coaster ride. More than 10 years ago, he got some major grants from NASA to develop in vitro meat for long range space flights, but his project was eventually defunded in favor or transgenic plants. Back in 2006 Charlem received some great media attention around Thanksgiving, but Mironov still wasn’t able to secure grants from the FDA, the NIH, or the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The most recent funding for Charlem research (before the suspension) came from PETA.
Yet if Charlem’s taste tests seem inevitably delayed, the general march towards artificial meat staggers on. Mironov and Genovese were just two out of dozens of researchers invited to present at the ESF workshop in Sweden. Singularity Hub covered efforts to create synthetic pork more than a year ago. When Mironov talked to the AFP he lauded Douglas McFarland of South Dakota State University and his work with developing myoblasts for culture. Charlem may have been one of the best chances at producing savory faux meat this year, but it wasn’t the only option. We may still see others produce a viably tasty product soon. PETA is even offering a $1 million prize for anyone who can grow a commercially available synthetic meat for market by June 2012.
And let’s not count out Mironov and Genovese entirely either. Sure, things look pretty grim for the team now, but Mironov has been working on this project for more than a decade. He’s tenacious and undeterred by skepticism.