The future of lab-grown meat is coming. Or at least it feels that way, based on burgeoning interest in the biotech community. One by one, companies are staking out different animal tissues to grow in vitro for human consumption. First there was beef. Then there was chicken. Now there's pork. San Fransisco-based startup Memphis Meats made its public debut today, with a Wall Street Journal exclusive that details the team's ambitious plan to grow beef and pork in laboratory bioreactors — and to be the first company to bring lab-grown meat to market. Memphis Meats says it will be selling its animal-free products to high-end customers in three to four years. Oh, and to dissuade any lingering doubts, they have also just unveiled the world's first lab-grown meatball.
Mark Post, whose stem cell burger created an international sensation in 2013, recently announced that his company, Mosa Meat, would be selling lab-grown beef in four to five years.
Lab-grown meat is one of those futuristic technologies that polarises people, with some saying it's going to replace animal agriculture and others insisting it will never be more than a novelty. Most arguments for or against lab-grown meat hinge on whether you buy the claim that we can produce animal tissue in laboratories at a far lower per capita cost than we can growing it the old fashioned way.
The resource requirements — water, energy, food, space, time — for growing a cow are fairly well-established. But the technology to grow meat in vitro is still in its infancy. And while the first stem cell burger carried a whopping $US330,000 ($466,221) price tag, production costs are falling by the year.
Still, significant technical barriers remain. Like Mosa Meat, Memphis Meats is growing animal muscle tissue in bioreactors seeded with stem cells and nutrients. One of the key challenges here is making sure the tissue, which lacks a capillary system to transport blood, remains well-oxygenated. So far, that's meant growing cells in extremely thin sheets.
Another issue concerns the growth medium itself. At this point, all lab-grown meat relies on foetal bovine serum, a nutrient-rich cocktail extracted from the blood of unborn calves. Not only is foetal bovine serum expensive, its use undermines one of the main arguments for lab grown meat: removing animals from the equation. When I spoke with Mark Post about his stem cell burger over winter, he told me his lab was working to develop a plant-based substitute. Memphis Meats tells the Wall Street Journal that it, too, plans to have a plant-based alternative in the near future.
Are lab-grown meatballs, chicken wings, and pork chops going to become an ordinary sight at your local grocery store? We'll have to wait and see. But the race to bring these future foods to our plates is clearly on.
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