Author: Ria Foye-Edwards
Institution: Syracuse University
Over the past century and a half the world has witnessed some of the most innovative ideas come to life; some of these ideas were stumbled upon by accident and others arose from pure inquiry. Take, for instance, the creation of the potato chip and the discovery of the antibiotic, penicillin. These inventions have proven successful over time and are still being produced for the public today.
However, great creations are seldom the result of trickery and accident (as was the potato chip and penicillin), but instead the outcome of years of hard work done by researchers who aim to fix worldwide problems.
One issue that has attracted much concern is the rapid use of Earth’s natural resources and the strain that humans are inflicting on the environment in order to support a growing population. As a result, the world’s population of 7 billion people requires and uses massive amounts of energy and land - resources which are not easily replenished.
For millennia, farming livestock for meat has proven a dependable method of providing food for many. In recent years, however, as researchers from around the globe become more aware of the changing climate, livestock have been determined as one of the main sources of methane, a major greenhouse gas.
One of the most creative attempts to reinvent a food system that is environmentally friendly and capable of keeping up with rising demand is the use of a tissue engineering method to create in vitro meat.
Producing in vitro meat involves extracting muscle cells from an animal, putting them into a growth medium, and letting the cells proliferate and develop into muscle tissue - which is the main component of meat we consume. This method, if performed on a large scale, could supplement increasing meat demands and use fewer animals, supporters say.
Dr. Mark Post, a researcher at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, is currently at the forefront of research to produce in vitro beef, also called cultured beef. Post first became involved with the idea back in 2008 when he taught tissue engineering at Eindhoven University of Technology.
“I coincidentally came across people who were interested in the idea and specifically an older gentleman in Amsterdam who had been obsessed with the notion of creating meat from stem cells through cell culture,” Post recalls.
It wasn’t by coincidence, but rather hard work that six years later Post and his team have successfully made the first in vitro hamburger.
“It’s a traditional cell culture method so you use culture medium containing amino acids, sugars, minerals and vitamins with the addition of fetal bovine serum to grow the cells...it takes about eight to nine weeks and is pretty intensive, for one hamburger you typically grow about twenty billion cells,” exclaims Post.
The cultured burger has been sampled and the tasters agreed that it had a texture similar to a farmed beef burger, but that it lacked the fat that is responsible for additional flavor and fatty acids. As a result, research is currently being undertaken by Post to culture fat cells.
“Currently we are culturing fat cells separately,” he says. “We could co-culture them with muscle cells, however it’s more complex, and that would be the next phase.”
Post and his team are experimenting with new ideas in order to enhance the burger’s appearance and taste. “Another thing we are working on is trying to boost the expression of myoglobin, which is a protein in the muscle that carries iron and oxygen…I have a feeling that the iron contributes to the taste and definitely adds to the color of the meat through its oxygen carrying. We hope that helps recreate the taste,” Post adds.
With the current method, this process remains rather time consuming and production must be scaled up in order to reduce the price of the product (which is currently
£ 250,000, that’s $400,145!) and make it readily available to the public. However, there is much concern from researchers and those advocating for in vitro meat about general acceptance.
Post says, “Are people generally going to accept this as an alternative for meat? As for the vegan and vegetarian communities some are very receptive and welcome this idea while others are more skeptical and feel it’s still an animal-derived product.”
Alanna Wagy, a College Campaign Assistant for PETA, shared several reasons why PETA is among those in the vegan/vegetarian community who are supportive of in vitro meat. In fact, PETA is offering a one million dollar reward for the first researcher to create in vitro chicken.
“Since we announced the contest, which actually ended on the fourth of May, more research than ever has been done in terms of in vitro meat in the U.S. and internationally,” shares Wagy.
But, unlike Dr. Post’s motive for securing the welfare of the environment, PETA has concerns rooted more strongly in the protection of the animals that are being used for food sources.
Wagy claims, “We decided to get involved because of the number of chickens that are killed. Roughly one million chickens are killed in an hour in the U.S and we realized that, while it’s somewhat easy to transition to a vegan diet and live plant based, there are always going to be people who are set in their dietary habits. We wanted to explore every possible alternative to stop animal cruelty at the source.”
This attempt to stop animal cruelty at its root could possibly cause livestock farms and meat manufacturing companies to dwindle. That is, If ever in vitro meat becomes the dominant form of meat production, this could spell trouble for existing producers. However, these companies could perhaps transition to new methods that will keep their businesses thriving. But how would in vitro meat impact local farmers? Would they be able to transition and produce in vitro meat like larger livestock manufacturers? Dr. Post describes such a scenario:
“There might be incentives to doing this [producing in vitro meat] on a smaller scale. Take, for instance, a small town with a farm with a few animals where locals townsmen feed them, tend to them and even give them names-and once in a while you take a sample from them for the stem cells and, in a building adjacent to the farm, you grow the meat for the entire community. Then you won’t have a lot of transport issues, people realize where their meat is coming from, and it would become more idealistic.”
If in vitro meat catches on, it will likely take some time before seeing in the ‘beef’ aisle at the grocery store. But what’s clear is that much progress has been made since the idea was first introduced. With researchers like Dr. Post and organizations like PETA promoting a more sustainable and animal friendly alternative, who knows if researchers will invent even more foods in vitro.
That being said, there is still plenty of time for the public to form their opinion and either accept or reject this new form of meat production. But for those working towards an in vitro food system they can only hope for one thing: for society to remain open to this alternative method.
Ria Foye-Edwards is a senior at Syracuse University. She enjoys reading and writing about nature and working as an undergraduate researcher in a developmental biology lab under the direction of Dr. Katharine Lewis.
This feature was written under the guidance of Science Writing Mentor Brian Howard.