Lunch is Served … on a Petri Dish!

(June 6th, 2014) Since last year, when a lab-grown hamburger was publicly chomped, in vitro meat is no longer so science fiction-y phenomenon. Turning the technology into an everyday reality is, however, an enormous challenge - but two Dutch researchers have an idea.

There is no getting away from the fact that the rising demand for meat will eventually cause our current system of production to become unsustainable, not only in terms of energy consumption and pollution but also in terms unacceptable animal suffering. For Cor van der Weele and Johannes Tramper, both based at Wageningen University, The Netherlands, our best option for the future may be 100% in vitro produced meat.

Both researchers are no strangers to this field. Biotechnologist Tramper has published extensively, looking at ways to optimise cell culture conditions, culminating with a paper published in 2007, in which he proposes insect cells for human food. Van der Weele’s interest, on the other hand, started in 2004 after “Disembodied Cuisine”, an exhibit at the L’Art Biotech in Nantes, France, where lab-grown frog steaks were served after the donor frogs were released back to their pond.

In a new joint paper, published in Trends in Biotechnology, the authors propose a potential meat manufacturing system, going from a handful of in vitro cultured cells in a Petri dish to a pressed cake of lab-grown material with a consistency akin to minced meat. “Edible animal cells can be cultivated stepwise in vessels of increasing size starting from a sample of the working cell bank up to the production vessel of 20m3, currently the largest volume used for growing animal cells,” explains Tramper. “The cells can then be flocculated using the protein-crosslinking enzyme transglutaminase, harvested and pressed to minced meat density.”

Despite the obvious issues, when asked about public acceptance, bioethicist van der Weele has a positive outlook. “There are many uncertainties and cultural responses will certainly differ, at least initially,” she says, but in the Netherlands, “People tend to approve the effort because of their growing ambivalences about ‘normal’ meat. What is crucial is the development of tasty, safe and affordable products.”

The duo believes any concerns about the unnaturalness of lab-grown meat may be overcome with small-scale factories, allowing consumers to maintain a close contact with the animals used as donors. In the long term, defends Tramper, “If people accept village-scale, they will also accept city-scale as long as the connection with the food-production chain is not broken.”

Realistically, there are still many challenges. According to Tramper, the major obstacles include “developing an appropriate cell line and a cheap, chemically-defined, serum-free growth medium in order to make the production of cultured meat of consistent quality economically”. In fact, the authors estimate the price of growth medium needs to be several orders of magnitude lower than what it is now and the price of normal meat several orders of magnitude higher, in order to make cultured meat economically competitive.

Still, the promise of cultured meat is too great to ignore and the media attention shows the public’s strong interest in meat alternatives. One of the most recent events worthy of front-page news was certainly Mark Post’s burger in 2013. Post, professor of vascular physiology from Maastricht University, famously ate a lab-grown burger in front of an invited audience in London. The researcher, who has long been an advocate of cultured meat, believes van der Weele’s suggested small-scale production of cultured meat helps to separate the technology from how it is going to be implemented. “It assumes - I think correctly - that the biggest fear of the consumer is related to the possible (and likely) implementation rather than the technology itself,” says Post.

However, Post presents some reservations about the system proposed. “It assumes a method of meat production that I would not support, as it is based on non-organised cells. This would basically generate an animal protein source followed by technology that is very similar to texturizing vegetable proteins.” In contrast, his research team has taken a slightly different approach. Their technology is based on self-organisation of the muscle cells into muscle fibres, to create the characteristic feel of meat in the mouth. “Mouth feel, appearance and taste need to mimic the traditional meat very closely in order to gain sufficient acceptance,” he defends.

Whatever the method used, conclude Tramper and van der Weele, ultimately the aim is to “raise the attention of investors willing to subsidize the necessary research to develop the concept further.”

Alex Reis

Pictures: Fotolia/Africa Studio (pipette), Bourland (meat grinder)

Last Changes: 07.25.2014