Dec
01
2009

Lab-grown meat moves closer to your table, mouth

Vat grown meat?: In five years, it could be yours.
Vat grown meat?: In five years, it could be yours.Courtesy Jorren
These are confusing times we live in. Are vampires legitimate objects of sexual desire, or is wanting to make out with a 100-year-old man still weird? What are dolphins thinking about? And what will you be eating in ten years?

It’s overwhelming, isn’t it? But Science Buzz is here to help. Here are the answers to the preceding pressing questions, in order: Yes, because when have millions of teenagers ever been wrong?; depends on the 100-year-old man, and if he’s interested too; sex, hunting, and horrible combinations of the two; and lab-grown meat.

We’ve talked about “artificial” meat here on the Buzz before, because it’s so weird, sciencey and awesome, but that was four years ago, and some wild things have developed since then.

Just in time for Thanksgiving, scientists in the Netherlands have created artificial muscles… for eating! The articles I found about the announcement were, unfortunately, pretty vague, and I’m not sure exactly what this muscle mass is like. It’s not a huge challenge to get a bunch of muscle cells to reproduce outside of a living animal, but getting them grow into a real muscle (and recognizable meat, instead of a formless mass of cells) is more difficult. It’s a similar problem to growing new organs for transplant, and similar methods have been tested; researchers are experimenting with using a collagen “skeleton” of a muscle for muscle cells to grow on. I think that the researchers in the Nethelands may have done something like this, because they’ve grown pig cells into what they’re referring to as “soggy pork,” a substance like “wasted muscle.” Just getting the structure right, it seems, is not quite enough for having lab-grown meat (or “in vitro meat”) that tastes and feels like the real thing. The scientists still need to figure out a way to “exercise” the bodiless muscle, but they think that they’re close enough to a solution that they claim the artificial meat could be on sale within five years. But, then again, that’s what this guy said five years ago, and in the 1930s, Winston Churchill said we’d be growing meat outside of animals within 50 years, so what do they know? Maybe they’re onto something this time, though—a sausage company is backing the research, and it’s thought that the first real fake muscles will be pretty small, and best used in ground meat applications. Like sausages.

It’s an interesting idea, in vitro meat. Unlike cloned meat, which still comes from a living, cloned animal, in vitro meat would never come from a whole animal, so there would be no animal cruelty. The original cells could be taken via biopsy, too, leaving the animal unharmed. It’s also hoped that meat-growing processes could eventually be better for the environment, because they wouldn’t require land to live on, or for growing feed crops, or as much fuel to move around, and they wouldn’t constantly be farting and producing methane (A very potent greenhouse gas). And while scientists in laboratories are doing these early experiments, commercial scale operations would be more like yeast- or yogurt-producing facilities. Even PETA, ever looking for trouble in the oddest places seems to be ok with the idea of in vitro meat, because it doesn’t require animals to be hurt or killed.

But would you eat it? Are you more or less comfortable with meat that was grown in a vat than with meat grown in an animal’s body?

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Molly P's picture
Molly P says:

That is absolutely revolting!

My question is about the energy it takes to produce this test-tube meat. Is it like biofuels where it is currently worse for the environment to use biofuels than fossil fuels? Or is it somehow more efficient?

posted on Tue, 12/01/2009 - 5:08pm
JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

You know, I wondered about that, but they never really addressed it in the press release. Here's what I think, though—I bet that it should be more energy efficient to produce in vitro meat, ideally, anyway. (I almost referred to it as "tube meat." The less said there the better.)

I imagine that hypothetical commercial-scale meat growing facilities would need to have heated vats, and whatever method they figure out for "exercising" the meat, I'm sure it'll take energy, and whatever nutrients the multiplying cells need will require energy to process, but I still think it'd all be less than the amount of energy it takes to grow a cow—I mean, you have to grow, harvest, process, and transport its food, and the cow itself has to be transported and processed. And, even if it does require more energy, I suppose there's the balance of land required, byproducts, etc. (I assume the land required would be much less, but I don't know about byproducts...)

Also, while looking for the answer to that question, I came across this article, which, among other things, suggests that in vitro meat production could potentially allow us to eat the meat of extinct animals. And that's what I really want. Giant sloth burgers and megalodon fillets.

posted on Tue, 12/01/2009 - 5:51pm
JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

That is absolutely revolting!

Also, I take it this means you aren't interested in lab meat?

posted on Tue, 12/01/2009 - 6:05pm
Molly P's picture
Molly P says:

No, I'm not interested in eating lab meat. I just think we've evolved to eat the real deal - real meat, real fats, real sugar. The less processed the better in my opinion.

posted on Wed, 12/02/2009 - 11:53am
JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

I suppose so. Although, in a way, lab meat would be the realest meat. It's just normal muscle tissue that has grown outside a body, and anything unnatural that might accumulate in a living animal (mercury in fish meat, for example) wouldn't be present. Some researchers have talked about engineering the meat to be more nutritious, but, in its basic form, it should be just plain, pure meat, less processed than the cured and rendered animal products we (I) love so much.

In another way, of course, it would be about the least real meat you could ever imagine.

posted on Wed, 12/02/2009 - 2:52pm
JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

Here's another article on the in vitro meat. Most of the information is the same, but this one is slightly more detailed.

posted on Mon, 12/07/2009 - 10:17am

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