Fast-food giant McDonald’s has attracted a great deal of attention in the past few weeks for refusing to raise prices on their famous Big Mac hamburger in order to increase the wages of their workers. One wonders, then, what the corporation would think of a burger that cost $330,000. Such a sandwich was recently displayed (and consumed) in London, its hefty price tag justified by its unusual origins: the all-beef patty was derived entirely from lab-cultured tissue.
Mark Post, a professor of vascular physiology at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, is the man behind the meat. Post’s team harvested stem cells from the muscle tissue of a live cow, then placed these cells in a mixture of fetal calf serum and growth medium. By maintaining a close control on the nutrients available to the stem cells, the team ensured that they differentiated into muscle cells instead of the myriad of other possible cell types. As the cells grew and divided, they formed tiny muscle fibers, or myotubes, which the researchers stretched in the lab to simulate exercise. Approximately 20,000 of the half-inch long, twenty-fifth-inch diameter strips were combined to form the final burger, which the tasters judged as “close to meat” and “surprisingly crunchy.”
The process is certainly more difficult (and expensive, although the cost of the London burger was defrayed by Google cofounder Sergey Brin) than raising an actual cow, but proponents of lab-cultured meat emphasize a number of possible benefits. By bypassing the inefficiencies of energy transfer involved with feeding animals, as discussed in a previous article on this blog, Post estimates that his method can save 70 percent of the energy used in conventional meat production. A recent article published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology also projects radical reductions in the greenhouse gas emissions, land requirements and water use of meat production through the use of laboratory techniques. Even the animal rights organization PETA is supportive of the idea, emphasizing the millions of animals who could potentially be spared from slaughter and mistreatment.
Besides cost, a number of technical hurdles remain before cultured meat can be considered ready for supermarket shelves. Only muscle tissue can currently be produced by available methods, which is sufficient for a hamburger but not for a full-fledged sirloin or other cuts. Post’s team is hoping to produce fat and bone cells from culture in the months to come, but structuring them into a steak could take more work. The nutrient content of the meat has yet to be tested, and it is likely that it will need to be supplemented with iron and other minerals. From an ethical standpoint, meat culture using current methods still requires a donor animal for the initial stem cells. Other researchers are attempting to bypass this requirement by isolating embryonic stem cells, which can divide indefinitely, or by regressing skin cells into stem cells for differentiation into muscle. A guilt-free filet mingon may be indeed be a possibility in the years to come.