Science Fact: Frankenburger — that’s meat grown in a test tube — is giving the late night comedians lots of joke material. Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, has been bankrolling research by scientist Mark Post at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. The goal? To feed steaks and chops and fried chicken to a hungry world without the tremendous inefficiency of farming.
Taste testers got to eat a test tube hamburger this month, and they were less than enthusiastic. But hey, this is new technology, give them a chance.
They start the process with stem cells from a cow. These are cultured in the lab using a scarce and rather alarming growth medium — fetal cow’s blood — although the researchers hope to use algae as feed in the future. Then comes an amazing step in the process: the strands of almost-meat are “exercised” to build up their muscle, using electrical stimulation. Finally, they are blended with lab-grown animal fat and beet juice for color, then shaped into a hamburger patty. No wonder the first burger cost a third of a million dollars and tasted “almost meat-like, like an animal protein cake”. Yuck. The whole idea “intrigues and repels”.
Science Speculation: Amazingly, growing meat in a test tube dates back to 1912. Alexis Carrel, a Nobel Laureate physician, started growing chicken tissue and may or may not have sustained the culture for twenty years. Fast-forward to the forties and fifties, a booming age of science fiction, and you find spaceships zooming across the cosmos with gigantic vats of meat bearing such affectionate names as Chicken Little and Hamlet (see Footnote below).
Putting aside the ethics of eating test tube meat (Does a vat of animal flesh have rights? Feelings?), and religious prohibitions (Is it kosher? Halal?), the economics stink. But a similar technology is being used to grow organs from a patient’s own cells, in hopes of someday replacing a failing heart or liver with an organ created from your own body. So far, there’s some success with bladders and windpipes, as well as unstructured tissues such as cartilage, bone, and pancreas and liver cells. The cross-coupling between organ cloning and test tube meat may advance both technologies in surprising and creepy ways.
Would you eat a Frankenburger made with test tube meat? Do you think it could become widely accepted?
Footnote: I was convinced that Chicken Little, Hamlet and perhaps Ferdinand (a vat of beef) all came from a book by Robert A. Heinlein, but I can’t find it. Bill Christensen, who writes the Technovelgy website, credits Chicken Little — in the sense of vat-grown meat — to Frederick Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth in their 1952 book The Space Merchants. Perhaps Heinlein grabbed the idea and extended it, but I’m unable to find a reference to it. Any science fiction fans out there with a good memory?
Dog bladders: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/265713.stm
Human bladders: http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/tech/science/genetics/2006-04-03-bladder-regrown_x.htm