Engineering the $325,000 Burger

The idea of creating meat in a laboratory — actual animal tissue, not a substitute made from soybeans or other protein sources — has been around for decades. The arguments in favor of it are many, covering both animal welfare and environmental issues. But now Dr. Mark Post, an engineer in the Netherlands, wants to show the world that meat made in the laboratory may be a reality, thanks to a $325,000 burger his lab finally developed (the unveiling has been delayed):

Dr. Post, one of a handful of researchers in the field, has made strides in developing cultured meat through the use of stem cells — precursor cells that can turn into others that are specific to muscle — and techniques adapted from medical research for growing tissues and organs, a field known as tissue engineering. (Indeed, Dr. Post, a physician, considers himself first and foremost a tissue engineer, and about four-fifths of his time is dedicated to studying how to build blood vessels.)

Yet growing meat in the laboratory has proved difficult and devilishly expensive. Dr. Post, who knows as much about the subject as anybody, has repeatedly postponed the hamburger cook-off, which was originally expected to take place in November. His burger consists of about 20,000 thin strips of cultured muscle tissue. Dr. Post, who has conducted some informal taste tests, said that even without any fat, the tissue “tastes reasonably good.” For the London event he plans to add only salt and pepper.

What kind of cells are used in creating this cultured meat?

In his work on cultured meat, Dr. Post uses a type of stem cell called a myosatellite cell, which the body itself uses to repair injured muscle tissue. The cells, which are found in a certain part of muscle tissue, are removed from the cow neck and put in containers with the growth medium. Through much trial and error, the researchers have learned how best to get the cells to grow and divide, doubling repeatedly over about three weeks.

The cells are then poured onto a small dab of gel in a plastic dish. The nutrients in the growth medium are greatly reduced, essentially starving the cells, which forces them to differentiate into muscle cells. “We use the cell’s natural tendency to differentiate,” Dr. Post said. “We don’t do any magic.”

My guess? We are about ten to fifteen years away where cultured meat becomes mainstream.

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Previously: the quarter million pounder with cheese.

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