What is the world’s most expensive burger? It will be at least €250,000, if Mark Post has something to say about it. That’s because Mark Post wants to create the burger entirely from scratch, with meat grown in a laboratory. Dr. Post, who works at Eindhoven University in the Netherlands, hopes to disrupt one of mankind’s oldest industries:
Raising animals is a resource-intensive process. About 30% of the world’s ice-free land is used for it. Yet of the nutrients in the plants these animals eat, only around 15% is turned into meat. As the human population grows, and grows richer, demand for meat is increasing. Dr Post hopes to satisfy at least part of that demand by making the stuff in factories, in a way that converts about 50% of the nutrients into something people can eat.
For now, that something is not exactly fillet steak. Dr Post’s cultures, grown from stem cells, are sheets 3cm long, 1.5cm wide and half a millimetre deep. To make the world’s most expensive hamburger 3,000 of them will be needed.
The stem cells themselves are extracted from cattle muscle and then multiplied a millionfold before they are put in Petri dishes and allowed to turn into muscle cells. When they have done so, they are encouraged to exercise and build up their strength by being given their own gym equipment (pieces of Velcro to which they can anchor themselves in order to stretch and relax spontaneously). The fatty cells of adipose tissue, needed for juiciness, are grown separately and then combined with the muscle cells before the whole thing is cooked. In theory, one cow could thus supply as many hamburgers as a million slaughtered animals can today.
Producing meat in Petri dishes is not commercially viable, but Dr Post hopes to scale things up—first by growing the cells on small spheres floating in tanks and ultimately by using scaffolds made of biodegradable polymer tubes, which would both add the third dimension needed for a juicy steak and provide a way of delivering nutrients and oxygen to the steak’s interior.