Test Tube Meat: It's What's for Dinner...Tomorrow

Jan 31, 2011
Megan Bedard is a sucker for sustainable agriculture and a good farmers market, she likes writing about food almost as much as eating it.
How much longer til we swap hooves for factories? (Photo: FotoosVanRobin/Creative Commons)

Imagine a day when your meat is produced in factories the size of football fields, nourished by large bioreactors.

You've just pictured one slivered facet of developmental biologist and tissue engineer Vladimir Mironov's fantasy.

Mironov has been working for 10 years on lab-grown meat that he believes can solve future global food crises as arable land diminishes, reports Reuters. He plans to call the edible flesh "charlem," short for Charleston engineered meat, a hat tip to the South Carolina city where he's doing his research.

So how's a steak created without involvement from a steer?

According to Reuters:

Dr. Mironov has taken myoblasts—embryonic cells that develop into muscle tissue—from turkey and bathed them in a nutrient bath of bovine serum on a scaffold made of chitosan (a common polymer found in nature) to grow animal skeletal muscle tissue.

Mironov works alongside Nicholas Genovese, a visiting scholar in cancer cell biology working under a three-year grant paid for by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

For now, the dream of mass distribution is relatively distant. The National Institute of Food and Agriculture won't fund the research, and neither will the National Institutes of Health. Mironov says he needs about $1 billion.

If funding does come through, Mironov will still need to woo public approval. Few people like to associate science with food, he explains.

Defying the doubters, the pair of researchers have shared their case for lab meat with Reuters:

1. Environmental impact.  "Thirty percent of the earth's land surface area is associated with producing animal protein on farms," Genovese says. Factories could produce the same amount of meat in less space.

2. Less waste. "Animals require between 3 and 8 pounds of nutrient to make 1 pound of meat. It's fairly inefficient," he tells Reuters. "Animals consume food and produce waste. Cultured meat doesn't have a digestive system."

3. Space food. "Further out, if we have interplanetary exploration, people will need to produce food in space and you can't take a cow with you," Genovese says.

4. Scientific advancement. "We have to look to these ideas in order to progress. Otherwise, we stay static. I mean, 15 years ago who could have imagined the iPhone?"

Photo: FotoosVanRobin/Creative Commons via Flickr

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