Can you eat meat without having to kill the animal? Mark Post, a Dutch stem cell researcher, thinks you can and on Monday he will present the world's first lab-grown hamburger at an arts fair in London.
But don't take a bite just yet, the patty purportedly has cost about $375,000 that was grown in a lab at Maastricht University.
The details are scarce, but two volunteers will be eating the meat at the carefully-planned media event that will be broadcasted live over the internet on the east coast starting at 9 a.m.
Update: The live feed appears to be down, but luckily you can view the video on YouTube here:
Post launched the project in October of 2011, which is a continuation for a 2 million-euro project in 2004 funded by the Dutch government. Speculation has it that an anonymous American billionaire has donated to keep the project alive.
The meat was created from stem cells extracted from animal flesh obtained from biopsies. In the original study, scientists were able to produce several 8x22mm pieces 0.5mm thick from stem cells taken from mice.
The use of stem cell research has gave birth to some ethical considerations, particularly among the use of human embryonic stem cells, since harvesting them causes the embryo to die. However, these stem cells were harvested from adult stem cells in animals, which means no killing required.
According to the fact sheet for the project, stem cells are usually taken from cows, pigs or chickens. The cells are stimulated with a little electricity then multiplied in a growth medium, usually synthetic media or in nutrient sources such as algae and turned into muscle cells. In this case because the cells already contain muscle precursors, this usually happens automatically. Then scientists "bulk up" the muscles using sugar to stack tissue.
To make it palatable, researchers also have to re-create the right amount fat and texture. If that isn't achieved, then conventional techniques could be used to make it nice and tasty, but this could mean anything allowable under law.
The idea is known as in vitro meat and it is not a new idea. "We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium," wrote Winston Churchill in 1936.
While the benefits of cultured meat could be the answer to some of the world's hunger problems, the idea of lab-grown meat has churned some stomachs in the U.S. and the news media could be to blame. Vladimir Mironov, a scientist doing lab-grown meat research, was fired from the Medical University of South Carolina and his project suspended in 2011 for reasons that are not clear.
"The prevalence of United States newspaper articles in 2011 may be attributed to the shutdown and firing of the lead cultured meat researcher and his lab," wrote J.N. Goodwin and C.W. Shoulders in an article in Meat Science published last May.
Yet with all of the skeptical news coverage of cultured meat, over 50 million people are eating fast food every day. If it turns out to taste good and not be harmful to the human body, the possibilities that cultured meat might have on the livestock and fast food industries could be staggering.
Aside from the reduction in animal suffering, space used for raising livestock could be also be greatly reduced and the atmosphere spared from methane-emitting cattle.
But in between weighing the potential risks and benefits of lab-grown meat, one thing is immediately clear: there ain't nothing like the real thing.
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