Brave New Hamburger


Fifty years hence we will escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.

—Winston Churchill, 1932

You got up at dawn. You gulped a breakfast sliced not long ago from Chicken Little and washed it down with Coffiest.

The Space Merchants by Frederick Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth, 1952

Take your protein pills and put your helmet on . . .

—David Bowie, 1969

In 1912, a surgeon named Alexis Carrel cut out a piece of a chicken embryo heart—still warm and living—and placed it in a glass dish in his laboratory.

He took good care of the little piece of tissue, feeding it well. The chicken heart lived for over three decades. When Carrel died in 1944, the heart was still alive and kicking.

Carrel’s Nobel Prize–winning work changed the course of medicine and biology forever—in all ways except one. If you could grow chicken hearts in a petri dish, couldn’t you grow chicken nuggets in a petri dish too?

In a recent article in the journal
Tissue Engineering, a small group of researchers outlined an ambitious proposal for ways to move forward with cultured-meat production—that is, meat made from animal cells, grown outside of the animal’s body. The basic idea is this: All meat is essentially muscle tissue marbled with fat. If you grew enough of these cells, you could theoretically make actual meat—without resorting to soy or slaughterhouses. Ideally, you could make thousands, if not millions, of nuggets from a single chicken using this method.

The idea of a lab-grown chicken nugget might seem gross, but consider the way they’re already being manufactured. In
Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser tantalizingly describes them as “small pieces of reconstituted chicken . . . held together by stabilizers, breaded, fried, frozen, and then reheated.” Jason Matheny, a graduate student in public health at the University of Maryland and a co-author of the
Tissue Engineering article, argues that there’s nothing natural about a slaughterhouse, either. “It is unnatural, actually culturing things outside of an animal,” he says. “On the other hand, you don’t find intensively confined animals on antibiotics and growth promoters in the forest. I think part of the reaction to cultured meat is based on not knowing how their meat is produced. I think if most people visited what they call a ‘concentrated animal feeding operation’—a CAFO—they would be very surprised. Most animals are housed indoors in huge warehouses where they never see sunlight, kept at incredibly high densities living in their own filth, and fed a range of drugs in order to increase their own growth rate, which isn’t a very natural thing.”

It wasn’t until the 1990s that a few scientists put two and two together and tried to grow meat in vitro. Part of the reason why it’s taken so long is that cultured-meat research is a highly underfunded proposition involving a mere handful of researchers. The exception is Holland, where the government has enthusiastically devoted half a million dollars to the advancement of cultured meat. (Hank Heksmaan, professor of meat studies at the University of Utrecht, is one of the leaders of the field.)

Cultured meat even gets short shrift in the realm of science fiction. Outside of the vat-grown Chicken Little in
The Space Merchants, there aren’t too many spellbinding examples. “Sci-fi novels usually have something like those devices that
Star Trek has, where you push the button and out comes a fruit cocktail or something like that,” notes Morris Benjaminson, a professor in the applied-bioscience program at Touro College School of Health Sciences and co- author of several pioneering meat experiments. “Something that’s constituted directly from matter, whatever molecules happen to be available, can be hooked together to form whatever it is that you want.”

Benjaminson was trying to figure out a way to make fish available to astronauts. Astronauts on very long space missions are de facto vegetarians, since it’s hard to get fresh meat on board. In an article published in
Acta Astronautica in 2002, Benjaminson’s group took chunks of goldfish and put them in petri dishes with plenty of a standard nutrient medium. The goldfish chunks grew in size over a few weeks.

There was a problem, though. Standard cell culture technique, employed by bio labs everywhere, uses something called fetal bovine serum—taken from the blood of baby cows. It’s a nutrient-rich solution ideal for growing cells, but not for trying to make something that’s edible—and hopefully palatable. Benjaminson and his group tried the experiments again, using shiitake and maitake mushrooms. The goldfish tissue flourished in the medium made from maitake mushroom extract; maitake mushrooms are particularly rich in amino acids and other vital compounds. They sautéed the results in olive oil and garlic and presented it for a smell test. “We had a sniff panel made up of women who worked here at the school, and we had them check the aroma of the fish muscle before and after it was cooked, and they found it to be pleasing,” says Benjaminson. (No one ate the results, however.)

But the fish didn’t keep growing wildly in size the way that Carrel’s chicken heart did. It became obvious that the key to moving forward wouldn’t be to use slices of tissue, but to move down to the level of the cell itself, using a type of muscle cell called a myoblast. “You want something that will proliferate a million times in culture,” explains Matheny.

Vladimir Mironov, a researcher at the Medical University of South Carolina, is a key proponent of the myoblast method. He’s also very aware of the obstacles. “The problem is, if you want to do in vitro meat production, it must be very, very cheap; you can’t use expensive growth factor, cell culture media,” he says. “Problem number two is that myoblasts are attachment-dependent cells; if they’re not attached to something, they won’t survive.” The cells need to be attached to a scaffold, preferably an edible one. Then there’s the question of texture—meat has the texture it does because of the way the animal moves its muscles during its life. “I think that part of the texture problem will have to be solved through ‘exercising’ the cells,” says Matheny.

Despite the technical barriers, Matheny, Mironov, and their collaborators are very aware of the possibilities. Cultured meat could be engineered to have a very specific composition, for instance. “The taste of the meat depends on the fat—that’s already well-known; we can add lipocytes,” Mironov says. “You want 10 percent or 5 percent, it’s very easy.”

As of yet, no one knows whether or not cultured meat will, in fact, taste like chicken. “It’s not going to develop quickly,” says Peter Johnson, co-editor of
Tissue Engineering. “People aren’t going to see this in a supermarket in two weeks. It’s going to be a long time before this is in front of people.”