Will consumers have a
with test-tube meat?
Globe and Mail: March 27, 2006: ANNE
MCILROY, SCIENCE REPORTER
Scientists can grow frog and mouse meat in the lab, and are
now working on pork, beef and chicken. Their goal is to develop an
industrial version of the process in five years.
If they succeed, cultured or in vitro meat could be coming to a supermarket
near you. Consumers could buy hamburger patties and chicken nuggets made
from meat cultivated from muscle cells in a giant incubator rather than cut
from a farm animal.
Home chefs could make meat in a countertop device the size of a coffee
maker. Before bed, throw starter cells and a package of growth medium into
the meat maker and wake up to harvest fresh sausage for breakfast.
You could feel good about eating a healthy breakfast; the meat would have
the fat profile of salmon, not pork. One day, the truly adventurous may be
able to grow ostrich, wild boar, or other game.
First, however, meat researchers in the United States and the Netherlands
must find a way to replicate on an industrial scale a process that works in
a petri dish. The price will have to be right. It is hard to imagine
consumers paying more for an in vitro burger than they pay for a regular
They will also have to overcome the "ick" reaction. Many find the idea of
cultured meat unappealing or downright disgusting. How would it taste?
"I don't find it hard to believe that in vitro meat can be produced that
tastes like hamburger or chicken nuggets," said Jason Matheny, one of the
founders of Vive Research, a U.S. form working on growing meat for the
global market. Most of the flavour in burgers and nuggets now sold in
grocery stores or restaurants comes from seasoning or filler, he said.
Researchers have succeeded in growing bits of meat, the type that could be
used in burgers or spaghetti sauce.
Growing a test-tube steak or pork roast will be more challenging, said Henk
Haagsman, professor of meat sciences at the University of Utrecht. He is
part of a team of Dutch researchers who are leading the world in the
He and his colleagues grew mouse meat in their lab because the stem cells
they could turn into muscle fibres were easily available. Now they are
working on pork.
Australian researchers have grown muscle tissue from a frog, which they
served with Calvados sauce at an exhibition in France in 2003. The frog
steaks, they said, tasted like jelly on fabric.
In 2001, U.S. researchers, funded by the National Aeronautics and Space
Administration, grew muscle tissue from a goldfish -- a kind of carp -- as
part of an experiment on whether it is possible to grow fish for astronauts
on long space journeys. Morris Benjaminson and his colleagues at Touro
College in New York bathed pieces of goldfish muscle in fetal bovine serum
-- which contains growth factors that spur muscle growth.
The fish muscle grew nearly 14 per cent over a few weeks. It smelled normal,
the researchers reported. But they didn't taste it.
NASA, however, has decided against space burgers -- fish or beef -- for
astronauts on long missions.
This has cut off an important funding source for U.S. researchers interested
in cultured meat, said Vladimir Mironov, a tissue engineer at the Medical
University of South Carolina.
He said mass production of cultivated meat will be difficult, and expensive,
at the least in the short term. But smaller, countertop bioreactors, or
incubators, could more easily mimic the meat-making experiments scientists
have done in petri dishes.
"It would look like a coffee maker -- this is my dream," he said wistfully.
"No one wants to fund it."
One group, which he would not name, did offer him money, but they wanted him
to grow meat from human cells, so they could grow pieces of themselves to
"I don't want to participate in high-tech human cannibalism," he said he
Theoretically, he said, it would be possible. Researchers have harvested
human myoblasts, cells that can grow into muscle fibre.
Even without the stomach-turning notion of a human burger, cultured meat is
not an appetizing idea for many people.
"There is no demand," said Mr. Mironov, who came to the United States from
Russia. During the Cold War, he said, Soviet scientists developed bacteria
that could produce protein. But no one wanted to eat the final product,
because it smelled revolting.
Cultured meat burgers will probably taste and smell no different from
conventional products, Mr. Mironov said. Eventually, he said, the world will
"I believe it is inescapable."
A public educated about the benefits of in vitro meat might come around to
the idea, said Mr. Matheny, a doctoral student at the University of
Last year, he and other researchers published a paper on how to grow
affordable meat for the modern dinner table.
The health and environmental benefits could be significant, they reported.
Cardiovascular disease and diabetes are associated with the overconsumption
of animal fats. Cultivated meats could be engineered to be healthier.
"Using this technology, you could grow ground beef or pork or chicken that
had the fat profile of salmon. That would have an enormous public health
Cultured meat could also reduce the risk of diseases such
as bovine spongiform encephalitis -- or mad cow disease -- and avian flu.
Growing meat in an incubator would cut down on the cropland, water,
fertilizer, pesticides and energy now required to produce animals for
slaughter. It would also reduce the millions of tonnes of manure and other
waste produced every year in North America.
A photomicrograph shows turkey muscle cells grown in
culture. Could the process be used commercially?
Demand for meat is growing in the developing countries, and alternative
animal farming might help meet that need, Mr. Matheny said.
He and his fellow researchers established a non-profit, New Harvest, as a
clearinghouse for information on cultivated meat. Last month, they set up
Vive Research, which Mr. Matheny said is backed by angel investors. It
involves numerous skeletal muscle tissue engineers in the United States, who
plan to collaborate with the Dutch scientists. They want to develop a
technology to produce ground meat in vitro in five years.
Most attempts to grow meat require cells cultured from an animal. They can
be stem cells, originally taken from an embryo, which can develop into any
kind of cell -- skin, bone or muscle fibre, for example. The trick is
coaxing them into muscle fibre with special growth factors.
Cells known as myoblasts, which are on their way to becoming muscle fibre,
are also being used.
The Dutch researchers have embarked on a five-year state-funded project to
cost-effectively produce pig meat.
They face challenges. The first is to isolate the best starter cells for
They also need to develop a culture medium that doesn't require fetal bovine
serum, a blood product extracted from embryonic calves that has a seemingly
magical power to make muscle cells grow.
Calf serum is expensive, costing $10,000 (U.S.) per kilogram of cultured
meat, according to one estimate. Using it doesn't make sense, Dr. Haagsman
"It is ridiculous to make meat using meat products," he said. The whole idea
is to reduce the resources that now go into producing the 240 billion
kilograms of meat humans around the world eat every year.
The scientists, from three universities in the Netherlands, are also
figuring out the best way to exercise muscle fibres to get them to grow.
Electrical stimulation works, but so does stretching, then shrinking the
Taste is another issue. Scientists don't know whether lamb meat tastes like
lamb meat because of characteristics of its muscle cells. Perhaps the
flavour comes from the grass an animal grazes on, or the food it is given to
They should know in five years whether growing meat on an industrial scale
can be done, Dr. Haagsman said. He said he believes consumers are
open-minded enough to try cultured meat.
Modern farm factories, he said, have essentially turned animals into
meat-producing machines. And avian influenza and other diseases may drive
consumers away from conventional sources.
He is hopeful that vegetarians, or partial vegetarians, would give
cultivated meat a try.
Charles Miller, part-owner of the Green Door Vegetarian Restaurant in
Ottawa, said he wouldn't try a bite.
"It is still an animal product," he said. "I wouldn't touch it. I wouldn't
Churchill predicted it.
An idea whose time has finally come? In 1932, Winston Churchill predicted
that in five decades, people would be eating cultured meat.
"Fifty years hence, we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken
in order to eat the breast or wing by growing these parts separately under a
Researchers say he might have been inspired by Nobel Prize winner Alexis
Carrel, who put a hunk of heart muscle cut from a chicken embryo in a bowl
of nutrients and kept it alive for more than 30 years.
In the past few years, scientists have grown more than meat in their labs.
In 2002, researchers in Japan reported they had grown tadpole eyeballs from
scratch. In 2003, scientists in the United States announced that they had
successfully grown a rabbit penis in the lab.
How to make your own meat
Vladimir Mironov, a tissue engineer at the Medical University of South
Carolina, wants to build a device the size of a coffee maker that would
allow people to grow meat in their kitchens.
Here is how it might work.
1. Myoblasts, immature cells that develop into muscle fibre, would be
harvested from a pig, cow, chicken or turkey and cultured.
2. Cooks could buy these starter cells, and add them to a growth medium,
which would contain water, sugar, salt vitamins, amino acids and growth
factors that would stimulate them to reproduce. (Scientists now use fetal
bovine serum, but say they would have to come up with a product that was
3. The mixture would be put into a counter top incubator, where it would be
warmed to encourage growth.
4. The cells would develop into muscle fibre.
5. Hours later, small pieces of meat could be harvested, washed and cooked,
either in a patty or a sauce.