Dr Mark Post and His Stem Cell Hamburger Meat

Scientists to create first-ever burger from stem cell-created artificial meat: The world’s first test-tube hamburger will be served up this October after scientists finish perfecting the art of growing artificial beef in the lab.

And if the Dutch scientist and his team are successful — both this October and beyond — scientists may have just solved the food crisis by growing “meat” in the laboratory. Or at least, growing artificial meat in labs may slash global warming gas emissions, posing a solution to one part of the global food-growing crisis.

Right now, the global agricultural industry is a major contributor to climate change, releasing tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. That alone threatens the security of the world’s present and future food supply, already threatened by many other economic and political factors.

At the same time, the multitrillion-dollar global food industry is also accused of massively polluting groundwater and rivers, causing elevated cancer risks among food growers. It’s also blamed for recurrent epidemics of foodborne illnesses brought by unsanitary conditions in factory farms and industrial slaughterhouses.

But meat grown in a lab?
Now that seems like something straight out of a science fiction novel, but it’s not.

Right now, a sliver of yellow-pink artificial meat made from stem cells has grown to be the size of a corn plaster and is growing in a Petri dish in a laboratory in the Netherlands.

If things go as planned by its creator, Dr Mark Post, professor of vascular physiology and head of Maastricht University’s physiology department, a complete burger made from this artificial meat will be unveiled on October.

Dr. Post told The Guardian that he hopes famous chef Heston Blumenthal, owner of the three Michelin-starred Fat Duck restaurant in Berkshire, the United Kingdom – known as one of the world’s best restaurants — will cook the artificial burger for a celebrity taster that remains, as yet, unnamed.

So far, Dr. Post and his team of six scientists have grown thin sheets of cow muscle measuring three centimeters long, 1.5 cm. wide and half a millimeter thick. It will take 3,000 such pieces of muscle and a few hundred pieces of fatty tissue, minced together and pressed into a patty, to make a complete burger.

And each piece of muscle is made painstakingly by extracting stem cells from cow muscle tissue and growing them in the lab. The cells are grown in a culture medium containing fetal calf serum that contains all the nutrients the cells need to grow.

Then the slivers of muscle are grown between Velcro pieces, flexing and contracting as they develop. Dr. Post says that the scientists shock the protein in the cells with an electric current to make the cells create more protein and to make the tissue texture more ‘meat-like.’

Caffeine is also used to coerce the cells to produce more myoglobin, a type of protein that carries iron and oxygen. This will make the “fake” meat more “authentic-looking” rather than the pink-and-yellow that it’s right now.

Apart from the “meat,” the scientists are also growing fat separately, to make the final burger juicier and tastier.

With this technology, the burger will be produced at a cost of more than £200,000 (EUR250,000 or US$330,000). But still, this test-tube meat has been heralded by The Guardian as the likely future of meat eating.

Dr. Post unveiled the novel project on Feb. 20 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Vancouver, Canada.

It’s funded by a wealthy person who wants to remain anonymous. According to Dr. Post, his financier is providing the 250,000 Euros needed to create the hamburger and reserves the right to choose who will be the lucky person to taste this futuristic burger.

Slashing emissions
But more than being a novelty, the project aims to slash the number of cattle farmed for food and by doing so reduce climate-change-inducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Growing livestock contributes hugely to global warming through unchecked releases of methane, a gas 20 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

Meanwhile, population continues to grow rapidly and so does the demand for meat. That doesn’t only spell havoc for the climate, but for the security of the world’s food supply.

“Meat demand is going to double in the next 40 years and right now we are using 70 percent of all our agricultural capacity to grow meat through livestock,” explains Dr. Post. “You can easily calculate that we need alternatives. If you don’t do anything meat will become a luxury food and be very, very expensive.”

Grain-fed meat production is wasteful and contributes a lot to global food scarcity. To grow one kilogram of beef, 13 kg of grain and 30 kg of hay are needed, as well as about more than 200,000 liters of water, according to a 2003 study by Cornell University ecologists published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Meanwhile, croplands and pastures occupy about 35 percent of the world’s ice-free land surface, notes another study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science in 2007.

Dr. Post says his team focused on making beef burgers from stem cells specifically because these production realities make beef count among the least efficient food products.

“Cows and pigs have an efficiency rate of about 15 percent, which is pretty inefficient. Chickens are more efficient and fish even more,” says Dr. Post. “If we can raise the efficiency from 15 percent to 50 percent it would be a tremendous leap forward.”

But Dr. Post’s team has even higher ambitions: creating artificial meat in the lab theoretically increases the number of burgers made from a single cow from 100 to 100 million.

“That means we could reduce the number of livestock we use by one million,” the Dutch scientist enthuses.

Right now and with the resources they have, Dr. Post admits that they can’t do that just yet. But, he says he believes it’s a relatively simple matter to scale up the operation, since most of the technical obstacles have already been overcome. “I’d estimate that we could see mass production in another 10 to 20 years,” he tells The Guardian.

Apart from cutting global greenhouse gas emissions, artificial meat grown in the lab has several advantages over real meat, because the process can be controlled at each step. The tissue, for instance, could be grown to produce high levels of healthy polyunsaturated fatty acids, or to have a particular texture.

If Dr. Post’s team will be able to grow lab-grown meat that looks and tastes just like real beef, then before the technology develops enough to make it mass producible, artificial meat might first become a premium product like free-range and organic meat.

According to him, the chairman of the Dutch Society of Vegetarians says half of his group’s members would start to eat meat if it was guaranteed to cost fewer animal lives. Most vegetarians choose to stop eating meat because of the ethics of growing meat.

Dr. Post says the burger would be a “proof of concept” to demonstrate that “with in-vitro methods, out of stem cells we can make a product that looks like and feels and hopefully tastes like meat.”

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