Fresh--from the lab? Photo: Fabrice de Nola via Flickr/CC BY-SA
by Brian Merchant, Brooklyn, New York
It's long been an electrifying possibility: Red meat without the environmental drawbacks. Meat without animal cruelty. Meat without industrial scale cattle ranches, without the vast drain on resources required to raise millions of cows. Meat without the forestland razed for grazing room, without the methane emissions.
In an attempt to bring about such a world, researchers have been diligently pursuing laboratory-grown meat for years. Supermarkets are in line to sell it. And evidently, a breakthrough is near: some scientists speculate that we might see the first lab-grown sausage arrive in just six months. Six months after that -- a hamburger.
So sayeth some of the field's leading researchers, including Mark Post, of Maastricht University in the Netherlands. The New Scientist reports that
"Post has experimented mainly with pig cells and has recently developed a way to grow muscle under lab conditions - by feeding pig stem cells with horse fetal serum. He has produced muscle-like strips, each 2.5 centimetres long and 0.7 centimetres wide."
Mmmmmm. Horse fetal serum probably tastes just like barbeque sauce.
The lab-grown meat feels and behaves a lot like regular meat -- in part because Post actually manually exercises the synthetic tissue. With Velcro. Seriously. Here's the New Scientist again:
"Post makes sure his tissue strips receive daily exercise to give them the same constitution as real muscle. He anchors them onto Velcro before stretching the cells away from the surface."
If there's any way to make a scene involving pig stem cells and horse fetal serum sound less appetizing, it's probably tossing in the image of somebody yanking and pulling at the stuff with Velcro. Regardless, Post is growing closer to being satisfied with the results. The lab meat's appearance is still an issue (it looks anemic and whitish) but if he's on to aesthetic concerns, then this stuff is probably more than ready for McDonald's.
And there are real-world reasons to be rooting for the rise of lab meat -- it requires much less water to make lab meat than real meat (cows and pigs consume prodigious amounts of feed, which must be grown as crops), and 99% less land. It's much more efficient to just grow the meat you'll eat, and not raise entire animals for the slaughter. By some counts, it could reduce harmful emissions by a stunning 96%. Sure, there will be an endless well of health questions to be answered, and anyone distrustful of GMOs will surely be skeptical of lab burgers. But if we could feasibly replace industrial scale cattle farming with industrial scale laboratory meat manufacturing, it would almost certainly be a net gain to both society and the global environment.
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