Engineering a Burger

Dr. Mark Post presented his work on in vitro meat at the First Day of Tomorrow event

Last August, a very special burger was introduced to the world: made from beef grown in a lab, the patty was proof of concept that in vitro meat could help provide a solution to some of the environmental costs of farming and a rapidly increasing demand for meat in the developing world. Dr. Mark Post, the researcher behind the project, spoke about his work at the recent First Day of Tomorrow event in Paris, explaining the process and the potential for lab-grown meat.

Last August, a very special burger was introduced to the world: made from beef grown in a lab, the patty was proof of concept that in vitro meat could help provide a solution to some of the environmental costs of farming and a rapidly increasing demand for meat in the developing world. Dr. Mark Post, the researcher behind the project, spoke about his work at the recent First Day of Tomorrow event in Paris, explaining the process and the potential for lab-grown meat.

(Credit: The Cultured Beef Project)

The men return home, high on the excitement of the hunt. The meat is prepared and ritually sliced, before being served to eager onlookers.

Anthropological observations of an indigenous tribe? That, or a description of suburban guys barbecuing by a summer’s day. These are the images used by Mark Post, a researcher at Maastricht University, to show the important position held by meat, from prehistoric times right up to today. Cooking meat provided our ancestors with a lot of energy, he says, which made possible the development of our big brains. “We are a species designed to love meat.”

The problem is that meat production is terribly inefficient, requiring a much greater input of food energy into the livestock than they give in return in the form of beef, for instance. Cows also need a great deal of space to graze, and growing their fodder consumes huge amounts of water. The environmental balance is just not in meat’s favor. Many choose to confront this problem by moving towards a vegetarian diet. At the same time, however, in developing countries like India and China, the demand for meat is increasing quickly. Research efforts to produce meat in a new way are another response to this dilemma.

Speaking at the First Day of Tomorrow event (#FDOT14), held in Paris in April, Dr. Post laid out such reasons for his recent work that culminated, in August 2013, in the taste test of a €250,000 burger: Post’s team is creating lab-grown meat. Biologically, it is beef, but not from a farm. The process starts with “poking a cow in the butt”, the researcher explained, and taking a 1cm biopsy sample, containing both muscle and fat. One of these will contain 5 to 6 stem cells, which are then grown in the lab to produce myotubes, tubes of cells amounting to primitive muscles. And muscles, as anyone who has worked out will know, need to perform labor in order to grow. “In a dish, we make them do so, and bulk up, by grabbing each other’s tail.” The young muscle fibers link up in a sort of chain, in a petri dish version of the gym. 20,000 of them make a hamburger.

The groundbreaking patty was served up in London to two testers, a food scientist and a journalist. Their response was very polite, Dr. Post said. One found it a bit dry, the other too salty, but given all that could have been said about a burger presented in a petri dish, the launch of lab-grown meat could be considered a success. “It’s a start. And it was better than all the vegetarian burger alternatives,” in Post’s opinion. Tastes are subjective, but this can probably be taken to mean the cultured meat was closer to “authentic” beef, as the two testers seemed to agree.

Maybe so, but will shoppers be able to see past its unorthodox origins? The Guardian newspaper conducted a survey on public attitudes toward in vitro meat and found that 69% of respondents would be willing to eat meat grown in a lab. According to Mark Post, a similar poll in the Netherlands showed that 63% were in favor of producing cultured meat, independently of whether or not they’d buy it. 75% said they probably would or would, indeed, buy it if the product were available in stores.

To reach that point, there’s still work to be done. Last August’s burger cost €250,000. Luckily, Google co-founder Sergey Brin footed the bill. But Mark Post says that, by scaling up production, that price could fall to $65 per kilo of lab-grown meat. They will also work on modifying the protein composition and “get some fat in there”, since, so far, the lab burger is grown only from muscle. The make-up of such meat could be tailored even further to meet specific needs, like making a burger that’s high in omega-3. “We could see prescriptions from your doctor for two burgers a week!” Looking even farther ahead, Dr. Post imagines families someday making their own meat at home, something like a vegetable garden, though you’d have to plan your menu in advance.

Home steak gardens may not be right around the corner, but Mark Post is confident that the idea of an affordable in vitro meat product is.  “This really will be for tomorrow. It’s not far off.”