The first lab burger made of meat from bovine cells grown from a starter culture of muscle stem cells was recently cooked and tasted before a global audience.
The Daily Mail recently reported that''a cultured beef burger, made from a cow's stem cells, was cooked in front of an invited audience and served to nutritional scientist Hanni Rutzler and author Josh Schonwald".
Dr Rutzler cautiously described the general effect as ''close to meat, but a bit dry'' citing the lack of fat usually present in cow muscle tissue, but absent in the in vitro grown meat, as the probable cause of the different mouth feel of the burger made out of cultured lab meat. Besides catching the attention of a global online audience this food of the future has captured the interest of Sergey Brin, one of the founders of Google who together with the Dutch Government helped finance the ground breaking research that brought us the lab burger.
There are good reasons for wanting to grow meat in the laboratory, Firstly, it makes sense from an environmental perspective saving arable land that can be put to other uses with a looming food crisis due to population growth. Secondly, cows are a substantial source of methane on a global scale, a powerful green house gas.
Finally, It also makes sense from an ethical perspective based on the treatment of animals that end up on our plates.
It might not be such a surprise then that People for The Ethical Treatment of Animals or PETA a few years back offeredto pay a million dollars for an alternative source of meat according to news reports.
So we have got influential people from all walks of life backing this research. But how is it done?
The starting material is adult stem cells. Adult stems cells come from differentiated tissues or organs in contrast to embryonic stem cells that come from embryos and therefore have been more controversial.
The adult muscle stem cells used to produce the lab burger ultimately come from muscle tissue biopsies from cows. Thousands of starter cow stem cells are allowed to multiply exponentially under controlled sterile conditions in the laboratory, with controlled temperature, adequate supply of nutrients supplied in liquid form, and a substrate that will not inhibit cell growth and promote organization of the cells into pieces of tissue. The resulting muscle tissue will theoretically give 50, 000 tons of meat in two months from as little as 10 starter cells as calculated by researchers at Utrecht University.
At present the conditions are far from optimal. As a result the cost of creating enough meat for the first in vitrocultured pattie was a staggering $320 000. But when the growing of the stem cells have been automated and the protocols streamlined the cost will come down to compete with the burgers served by any multi national burger chain.
And the possibilities for new products spinning out of this new technology are interesting.
Instead of taking the stem cells from cow we could consider taking stem cells from poultry or pigs that are two other readily available sources of animal protein today.
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