It sounds like a sci-fi nightmare: giant sheets of grayish meat grown on factory racks for human consumption. But it's for real. Using pig stem cells, scientists have been growing lab meat for years, and it could be hitting deli counters sooner than you think.
Early attempts produced less-than-enticing results. Then, in 2001, scientists at New York's Touro College won funding from NASA to improve in vitro farming. Hoping to serve something, well, beefier than kelp on moon bases and Mars colonies, the scientists successfully grew goldfish muscle in a nutrient broth. And, in 2003, a group of hungry artists from the University of Western Australia grew kidney bean-size steaks from biopsied frogs and prenatal sheep cells. Cooked in herbs and flambéed for eight brave dinner guests, the slimy frog steaks came attached to small strips of fabric — the growth scaffolding. Half the tasters spit out their historic dinner. (Perhaps more significant, half didn't.)
Today, scientists funded by companies such as Stegeman, a Dutch sausage giant, are fine-tuning the process. It takes just two weeks to turn pig stem cells, or myoblasts, into muscle fibers. "It's a scalable process," says Jason Matheny of New Harvest, a meat substitute research group. "It would take the same amount of time to make a kilogram or a ton of meat." One technical challenge: Muscle tissue that has never been flexed is a gooey mass, unlike the grained texture of meat from an animal that once lived. The solution is to stretch the tissue mechanically, growing cells on a scaffold that expands and contracts. This would allow factories to tone the flaccid flesh with a controlled workout.
Lab-grown meat isn't an easy sell, but there could be benefits. Designer meat would theoretically be free of hormones, antibiotics, and the threat of mad cow disease or bird flu. Omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins could be blasted into the mixture (see illustration above) or dispersed through veins. Revolting? You bet, but have you ever visited a sausage factory? Currently costing around $100,000 per kilogram, a choice cut of lab meat makes Kobe beef seem like a bargain. But meat-processing companies hope to start selling affordable factory-grown pork in under a decade. Bon appétit.
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