Friday, May 27, 2011

Stop the Presses: Meat from a test-tube

Miss the previous "Stop the presses" posts? Here they are for your viewing pleasure: 

So...for you non-vegetarians out there, where do you get your meat? Do you get it from the grocery store? The local butcher? Maybe straight from the farm or the farmer's market? In any case, westerners eat a lot of it. Cow, chicken, pig, lamb, even fish are the main protein components of the western diet. 
What if we had another protein source...and it looked a little more like this: 


I try to talk to people about this possibility, and almost everyone I speak to has the same look of horror on their faces. Even other scientists are in a state of disbelief or disgust regarding the possibility of cultured, or test-tube, meat products.There is a lot of fear-mongering about how evil scientists make unnatural food in the lab and it's going to lead to human diseases like cancer or make us mutants. Some people are in denial that we need to be looking into culture meat products. Some just don't think it will taste good. I'm here to discuss and debunk these items using science. 

1) What is cultured meat? I heard it was protein from bacteria and that it might make us sick...

Cultured meat is made from muscle cells that are grown in the lab. These cells started out as stem cells from the food-source of choice (i.e. cow gets you beef, pig gets you pork) and then were treated with a variety of biological signals in order to cause them to become muscle fibers. This is just like what happens in a cow's body, only it happens in a test tube or a culture dish, with scientists applying the correct signals at the correct time.

While it's not protein FROM bacteria, one popular method suggested for making large quantities of this protein source is to grow it in cyanobacterial culture as its nutrient source. This is kind of crazy and brilliant at the same time...and this is why (cue really awful cartoons that long-time readers should be used to by now!): 

Cyanobacteria are special in that they act kind of like plants...they grow photosynthetically (using light for energy and capturing carbon from the environment). They make their energy from the sun and from carbon dioxide (CO2) that we exhale, so cyanobacterial culture is great to lowering the carbon footprint of humans...and they can provide the mammalian 'meat' cell everything it needs to be happy.

On that same note, sometimes some people do eat yeast in yeast breads, beer, and kombucha....molds and bacteria in cheeses...but microorganisms are also been grown in bulk and have their proteins extracted to make food products like Quorn. Quorn is a vegetarian protein source (it uses egg as a binder, so it's not vegan) that is made from a fungus that is extracted, processed, and flavored to make a chicken-like protein.

The fiance and I have tried Quorn, and we like it. It's expensive, and we prefer to eat whole foods. We are also not vegetarian and neither of us require an exceptionally high protein diet, so we don't think its completely necessary.

So, if you're familliar with Quorn, do you like it? Does it bother you that it's from a large culture of fungus grown in a lab? How about this....the fungus used to provide the protein for Quorn is from the same family of fungi that release toxins into our grain supply (i.e mycotoxins) that can lead to illness and death. I don't tell you this to scare you...just to open your eyes to the possibilities.

This is a commonly consumed food product, created in the lab, from a fungus that could easily evolve to make us sick...and no one has gotten sick yet. Just a thought.

2) How will the meat taste? Will it be more like hamburger...or steak?

So, by all accounts I've read (and these are just press releases), fish culture grown from fish tastes like fish, beef like beef, and chicken like chicken. They have a little trouble with pork, but that will come in time, I'm sure.

Texture is another matter. At first, they could culture the cells and get them to multiply and create large pieces of meat-like mush, but that wasn't appetizing. With the exception of liver pate, all meat products have a texture or resistance when you bite into them, and this has to be built. Naturally, this happens in animals because muscle cells are strung on a skeleton, like a lattice. This lends natural resistance, which get the cells to grow into muscles with some tension. Then, when the animal moves around, those cells continue to grow and develop, which creates different girth and tension for different parts of the animal.

This has proven difficult to do in the laboratory, but the scientists working on it have come up with some amazing ideas.First, they grow the cells in a dish or tube, which makes them form into this glob of tissue.

This glob of tissue has no tension. It is like a doesn't have the skeleton that would give it structure to grow and get a form. So, scientists give it that tension by attaching it to different connection points and stressing and straining the blob.

This is just like weightlifting. You stress and strain your muscles, making tiny tears. Upon repair, the muscle grows and takes shape. The scientists can increase the weight or strain and grow the tissues into edible muscle-like tissues.

Using this method takes a lot of time and space. which makes it costly. Scientists have found a quicker method for making the tissues grow and gain strength, and it uses shock therapy.

When you tell your body to move, it sends electrical impulses along your nerves to trigger such movement. This can also be mimiced in the laboratory, where they can shock the tissues into contracting and relaxing (like a police taser?). This is much quicker and gets larger yields of cells.

Then one day, you come into the lab and find a steak where your blob used to be.

Well, not really. But you would find something that looked increasingly like meat. When I imagine it, it looks more like a pork loin...long and cylindrical.

The reality is that people have pretty strong asthetic requirements for what their meat products look like - be it a steak, a chicken breast, or a pork loin - and laboratory meat has a long way to go before it can replicate those. It's far more likely that laboratory meat will take the form of ground products like hamburger, fish sticks, chicken nuggets, and sausage. Those can be heavily flavored to replicate the foods we are used to.

3) Ok, so when is this product going to be available in my meat case? Will it even get that far? 

This is the question that I don't have the answer to right now. I have several ideas and concerns, but I'd love to hear your ideas and concerns about this product as well.

My immediate thoughts are:

A) Short of an epic disaster, laboratory meat products aren't going to enter the US, Canada, or the EU for a long time. The backlash against GMO foods has been too strong and there is too much fear. However, these are relatively wealthy countries. Most of the country doesn't know hunger. I could see laboratory meats being fast-tracked in war-torn or impoverished countries to meet the growing need for food.

B) I am nervous about our lack of understanding of some of the basic science here. Those scientists are applying growth hormones and factors to the meat product. No one that I can find reference to has ever studied the effects of eating or applying those factors to humans or other creatures. I would like to see studies that indicate that they are safe, and to do that we need to return to funding basic science. The scientists on this study only get paid to 'make the product'. We need other, probably public, funds to determine its safety.

C) On the other hand, this has the capability to revolutionize the agricultural market and allow the Earth to support a larger population than previously predicted. Especially since breakthroughs have been made in stem cell research allowing for the production of stem cells from other cells (link to recap at top of page), we would be able to culture meat in a clean, safe, and animal-friendly environment that reduces the emissions of greenhouse gases and prevents things like environmental contaminants and illnesses from interfering with our food source.

The scientists and funding groups that are in charge of this project say that we might see laboratory meats available in the next year, but I'm pretty convinced that we won't see them for 5-10 years as we overcome the financial, medical, and ethical hurdles that will be met as this technology grows.

Hope you learned something. If you have questions, please ask them!

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