8th November 2011
Stem cell steak: Growing your own meat
By Nigel Brown

Is it possible that in the future we will grow our own meat?

Pink in the middle, thick, juicy, and grilled either side in a lightly toasted bun with a side of chunky chips. Oh yes, most of us go weak at the knees for a well-cooked hamburger, but the classic quarter pounder as we know it could be changing. Dutch professor Mark Post has been given €300,000 to create a new hamburger; and it’s not just any gourmet burger, but a burger made without using animal meat.

Post is head of the department of vascular physiology at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, and the Dutchman is on the frontline of a new era of research that could, if successful, cut out the necessity to slaughter livestock – it’s called “in vitro meat.”

The Dutchman wants to grow a burger, and eventually steaks in laboratories using muscle stem cells, changing meat from a farming process to a factory process. The stem cell is a unique and extraordinary type of cell that can replicate itself several times and split into a number of specialised cell types, such as muscle cells – which can in turn be grown into strips that can be made into a hamburger, and eventually a steak.

How does it work?

The stem cells are taken from the animal. The embryonic stem cell, the most potent of all stem cells has the greatest possibility of producing tonnes of meat, however Professor Post believes that trying to manipulate and control the embryonic stem cell is too hard. Humans have managed to cultivate embryonic stem cell development in humans, rats, and mice, but cows and pigs have proved extremely tricky.

Instead Post uses cells called myosatellites which are a muscle stem cell that is normally used to repair damaged muscle tissue. These can also be extracted without killing the animal and they are cells which can only develop into a muscle cell – in essence they are a“one-way” cell – which means it is easier to control its development.

In order for the cells to develop the muscle cells must be exercised regularly, with some researchers giving the cells tiny electric shocks to stimulate growth. Post instead looks to the muscle cells to exercise on their own. Pieces of velcro, which act as anchor points, are fitted in the petri-dish and they in-turn produce tension in the muscle cells. The cells naturally try to contract, but the velcro provides resistance which in turn stimulates the cell to grow and add bulk, as the cell looks to increase the possibility of contraction with the velcro.

Eventually after a few weeks the cells grow into strips a couple of millimeters thick and 2-3 centimeters long. Currently Post is unable to grow them any bigger as there is no way to get oxygen and nutrients into the cells in the centre of the strip. However moving forward in the nect few months Post is hopeful that he can develop an intricate meshwork that would allow nutrients and oxygen to travel to the centre of the strip, hopefully producing strips thick enough that could be create an end-product similar to a steak.

From stem cell to steak

While this research is ground breaking, Post is not the first person to have this idea. In the mid 20th century Dr Willem van Eelen wanted to create meat using stem cells, but struggled to develop the process, until 1999 when he was granted a patent on the idea. Following van Eelen’s lead, NASA took an interest in 2002 and funded Dr Morris Benjaminson at Touro College, New York, to explore creating meat from stem cells in order to feed astronauts on deep space trips.

Benjaminson removed a sample of cells from the muscle of a goldfish and grew them outside the fishes body. The fillet was marinated with garlic, lemon, pepper, olive oil, and deep fried, however the researchers were not allowed to eat the end-product because of US laws preventing the consumption of experimental products – however its smell and look was identical to a traditional fish fillet.

Dr van Eelen convinced the Dutch government in 2005 to fund research into test tube meat, but the funding eventually ran out. However earlier this year an anonymous philanthropist made contact with Professor Post, who had worked for van Eelen, and offered to pay him to create this unique hamburger.

The rest is history with Post hopeful of the research changing the way in which we produce meat. “In principle we could use any animal as a source for our meat. We could use pig meat, fish, chicken, game, any animal that has myosatellite cells in its muscles, he told the BBC. “Some people think it’s the same as genetically modified food, but it’s not. We use exactly the same process that happens in nature. It would be great if someone like Jamie Oliver agreed to cook it (hamburger) for us, and a famous actress ate it.”

Costly carbon footprint and welfare debate

But why are we desperate to produce our own meat in a laboratory? The grim reality of livestock farming is it accounts for 18% of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions. This coupled with the recent UN forecast that world demand for meat will double by 2050 creates a major issue for our planet. On top of this around 80 per cent of farmland is devoted to meat production, while cattle consume 10 per cent of the world’s fresh water supplies. Not only is this costly, it just simply isn’t sustainable on any level moving forward – it doesn’t make any sense.

Dr Helen Ferrier of the National Farmers’ Union told the Daily Telegraph that despite the claims there is still a sustainable future for traditional farming: “Clearly we would prefer people to continue buying beef produced directly from the British beef industry well into the future, rather than from cattle stem cells.

“There is great potential for traditional beef farming to be sustainable and efficient, to reduce emissions and feed a growing population while continuing to offer benefits to the environment, landscape and the rural economy.”

On top of the well-debated environmental impacts and costly production methods there is the fact that deep down most of us are not that happy with farming standards, or for the people who say they are content, most probably, haven’t visited an abattoir.

The manner in which the majority of meat is slaughtered is not friendly towards animals, and could be drastically improved. The animal rights organisation ‘People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals’ (PETA) announced that it is giving $1 million to the first company to not only create a synthetic alternative to meat, but launch the product in at least six US states by 2016.

With the laboratory production of meat we would still need small herds of cattle that could donate stem cells, however the possibilities could mean that traditional livestock farming would become a thing of the past.

There is one outcome that even Post has overlooked – no one has tasted the meat yet. Even if the burger tasted bad, it would still mean a massive breakthrough that could reduce carbon emissions, change the face of farming, and appease animal welfare groups.

And even if “in vitro meat” is a little bland, there is always our old man-made friend tomato ketchup to lend a helping hand.

The End
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