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And You Thought Tofu Was Weird....

Posted by Josh Rothman  December 10, 2010 12:18 PM

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Somewhere between SPAM and soylent green lies tasty, nutritious, guilt-free meat grown from stem cells - a Holy Grail for a group of scientists profiled in this month's issue of Nature.

Image by Nik Spencer for Nature - click to enlarge.

Nicola Jones interviews Mark Post, a scientist in hot pursuit of stem-cell meat at the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands. As this amazing graphic from Nature illustrates, Post's goal is to take stem cells from a pig and use them to grow pork in vitro - that is, to grow pig muscle by itself in the lab, without growing the rest of the pig.

There are good reasons for wanting to do this. As Jones writes, growing pigs and other livestock animals is incredibly expensive and wasteful: "a vegetarian diet requires only 35% as much water and 40% as much energy" as a meat-eater's diet. If meat could be be mass-produced in vitro, the environmental benefits would be huge. Vegetarians are in favor of it, and so are animal-rights activists: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is offering a $1 million prize to "the first company to bring synthetic chicken meat to stores in at least six US states by 2016."

$1 million is a drop in the bucket, unfortunately. Post estimates that it will cost at least $250,000 to create one solitary artificial sausage, and at least £100 million (about $160 million) to commercialize the operation. That's because there are serious technical challenges. First, it's difficult to find a safe and cheap growth medium for the muscle cells. And second, it's hard to 'exercise' the muscles once they've been formed. Unexercised muscles have no texture or flavor. Right now, Post grows the muscles on tiny little racks which keep them in tension, and uses electric shocks to boost their protein content. But the meat, according to one brave soul who's tried it, is "chewy and tasteless," in part because it has no fat content.

If it works, what will this technology look like? Jones talks to Vladimir Mironov, a scientist at the Medical University of South Carolina, and finds that

Growing meat on an industrial scale would require large, customized bioreactors like those used by biopharmaceutical companies. Mironov estimates that a commercial in vitro meat facility would need a five-storey building of bioreactors; with a similarly huge investment. And all that is just for manufacturing ground meat. The prospect of growing steaks is a much bigger challenge, requiring a system of fake 'blood vessels' built into the meat.

It's not as though factory farms are pretty, of course; still, they don't have an air of The Matrix about them. Usually one thinks of the alternative to factory farming as organic or free range farming. In vitro meat is a surprising alternative, the polar opposite of a "whole food." The whole project suggests that the only way out of industrial farming is through.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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