Last year, scientists created the world's first lab-grown burger — and by all accounts it didn't taste half bad. Sadly, the cost of a single patty ran upwards of $385,000. Now, European researchers have developed a small-scale manufacturing technique for synthetic meat that could eventually prove revolutionary.
The global demand for meat is steadily increasing. Left unchecked, it's a trend that will be sure to result in increased environmental pollution, energy consumption, animal suffering, and the proliferation of animal-borne diseases. This is why cultured meat is increasingly being seen as a potential solution despite the "yuck" response that typically accompanies the prospect. Indeed, as illustrated in a Times editorial last year: "'How absurd is it to imagine all our meat one day being produced by a similar process [tissue culturing]? Not much more absurd than it is to imagine all our meat continuing to be produced as it is now."
As noted, it's already possible to make meat from stem cells. The technique was devised by Maastricht University physiologist Mark Post, who assembled a 5-oz beef patty from thousands of tiny meat strips cultured from the stem cells of a single cow. It's a technological advance that ScienceNow's Kai Kupferschmidt believes could kickstart "the biggest agricultural revolution since the domestication of livestock."
But according to biologists Cor van der Weele and Johannes Tramper in a new Science & Society paper, though the potential advantages of cultured meat are clear, there's no guarantee that people will want to eat it. The mode of production, they argue, makes a difference for appreciation. To that end, they've developed an eco-friendly model for producing greener, ethical meat — one that involves small-scale local factories that are not only technologically feasible, but also socially acceptable. As per the title of their paper, they're hoping to see "every village [with] its own factory."
Inspired by the way current research labs go about their stem cell work, van der Weele and Tramper devised a manufacturing process that starts with a vial of cells taken from a cell bank and ends with a pressed cake of minced meat.
(Trends in Biotechnology, van der Weele et al.)
Starting with a vial of stem cells from the working cell bank, the process facilitates the exponential growth of cells with each successive step. After the cells grow to a certain density, they're moved to the next culture vessel, which is an order of magnitude larger.
The final bioreactor starts only partially filled and is fed with a sterile medium to ensure that the cells grow under optimal conditions. When it's full and the desired cell density is reached, an enzyme and a binding protein are added to induce the formation of easily settling aggregates of cells. They quickly settle when stirring is stopped. Then, the harvested cells are pressed and the cake is divided into retail- or consumer-sized portions of minced meat.
The researchers admit that there will be challenges when it comes to maintaining a continuous stem cell line.
How does this product compare in price to traditionally raised meat? Not great. The authors explain:
One should realize that this can only be done in an ultramodern factory under Good Laboratory Practice (GLP) and Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP), or International Organization for Standardization (ISO) norms conditions, needing at least three to four highly educated and well-trained technical employees. In the Netherlands, the price of minced meat is not much more than €5 [$6.85] per kg [2.2 lbs]; in other words, 25,600 kg [56,438 lbs] of meat would only earn €128,000 [$175,360] per year, hardly enough to pay the salary of one 'butcher' and his/her assistant.
For this solution to be viable, the price of "normal" meat would have to rise considerably. But the promise, they say, is too great to ignore.
"Cultured meat has great moral promise," write van der Weele and Tramper. "Worries about its unnaturalness might be met through small-scale production methods that allow close contact with cell-donor animals, thereby reversing feelings of alienation. From a technological perspective, 'village-scale' production is also a promising option."
We're still a far way off from being able to mass produce synthetic meat. But this first generation solution could inspire more sophisticated techniques in the coming years.
Read the entire study at Trends In Biotechnology: "Cultured meat: every village its own factory?"
Image: Better Off Ted.