The Cow-Free Beef… Well, Almost.

Using Biotechnology to produce real meat protein grown from stem cells from donor animals.

“A vegetarian with a Hummer is actually better for the environment than a meat-eater with a bicycle,” remarked a facetious, yet serious Mark Post at a 2013 TEDx conference in Netherlands, when explaining the impact of conventional animal farming on the environment and the enormous resources it takes to grow a little bit of meat: a lousy “bioconversion rate,” he informs an astute audience. Post is a pioneer in a dynamic application of biotechnology called tissue engineering, which involves building biologically-functional matter like blood vessels, or bone, using adult cells and specific biochemical factors, to potentially replace or improve damaged tissues, largely circumventing the need for the controversial fetal stem cell research to engineer life-saving therapeutics. However, instead of using tissue engineering to grow human organs, Post has chosen to grow a beef burger, an out-of-the-box approach to preparing for the inevitable surge in population and the ensuing rise in demand for meat, expected to double over the next few decades.

The process requires muscle stem cells, precursor cells that are destined to mature only into muscle cells, obtained from a donor cow (or potentially a pig, fish, chicken, turkey, or any other meat one wants to eat) through a simple and innocuous procedure.  Like growing a plant, the cells are given everything they need to survive and multiply into real muscle cells, including nutrients, correct temperature, and anchor points to direct their assembly. What you get after eight weeks of multiple rounds of cell division are strands of muscle fiber that can be assembled into a beef patty, the prototype of which was showcased last year in a widely-covered event in London.

Post admits that several key details need to be worked out. The authentic red color of the meat, which comes from blood and specific protein called myoglobin, has to be induced; the fat in the meat has to be added to give it taste. Moreover, thickness, characteristic of a stake, has to be somehow achieved, without a vasculature to nourish and irrigate the cells in the middle, as is the case in an animal. Yet, Post boldly envisions a future where household pantries will come with packs of a variety of muscle stem cells (perhaps somewhat like a dry yeast pack) that will be cultured and grown into edible authentic meat in a simple kitchen incubator.

And Post isn’t the only one with this vision. The father and son team of Modern Meadow, Gabor Forgacs and Andras Forgacs, are also developing ways to use tissue engineering and 3D bioprinting– systematically layering of cells on a particular matrix to achieve a three-dimensional biological structure– to not only produce animal-free meat but also animal-free leather.

So, in this almost sci-fiish future, we can expect to be able to buy cultured meat as well as cultured leather.  What about cultured milk? An offshoot of biotechnology devoted to reinventing the way we look at food is the production of animal-free milk, spearheaded by a start-up company called Muufri.

Regardless of how long it will take, it seems likely that, as techniques in tissue engineering and 3-D bioprinting improve, achieving authentic cultured animal products at an affordable price is a reasonable prediction of the future. The question is, Would you eat it?

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