Courtesy JorrenThese are confusing times we live in. Are vampires legitimate objects of sexual desire, or is wanting to make out with a 100-year-old man still weird? What are dolphins thinking about? And what will you be eating in ten years?
It’s overwhelming, isn’t it? But Science Buzz is here to help. Here are the answers to the preceding pressing questions, in order: Yes, because when have millions of teenagers ever been wrong?; depends on the 100-year-old man, and if he’s interested too; sex, hunting, and horrible combinations of the two; and lab-grown meat.
Just in time for Thanksgiving, scientists in the Netherlands have created artificial muscles… for eating! The articles I found about the announcement were, unfortunately, pretty vague, and I’m not sure exactly what this muscle mass is like. It’s not a huge challenge to get a bunch of muscle cells to reproduce outside of a living animal, but getting them grow into a real muscle (and recognizable meat, instead of a formless mass of cells) is more difficult. It’s a similar problem to growing new organs for transplant, and similar methods have been tested; researchers are experimenting with using a collagen “skeleton” of a muscle for muscle cells to grow on. I think that the researchers in the Nethelands may have done something like this, because they’ve grown pig cells into what they’re referring to as “soggy pork,” a substance like “wasted muscle.” Just getting the structure right, it seems, is not quite enough for having lab-grown meat (or “in vitro meat”) that tastes and feels like the real thing. The scientists still need to figure out a way to “exercise” the bodiless muscle, but they think that they’re close enough to a solution that they claim the artificial meat could be on sale within five years. But, then again, that’s what this guy said five years ago, and in the 1930s, Winston Churchill said we’d be growing meat outside of animals within 50 years, so what do they know? Maybe they’re onto something this time, though—a sausage company is backing the research, and it’s thought that the first real fake muscles will be pretty small, and best used in ground meat applications. Like sausages.
It’s an interesting idea, in vitro meat. Unlike cloned meat, which still comes from a living, cloned animal, in vitro meat would never come from a whole animal, so there would be no animal cruelty. The original cells could be taken via biopsy, too, leaving the animal unharmed. It’s also hoped that meat-growing processes could eventually be better for the environment, because they wouldn’t require land to live on, or for growing feed crops, or as much fuel to move around, and they wouldn’t constantly be farting and producing methane (A very potent greenhouse gas). And while scientists in laboratories are doing these early experiments, commercial scale operations would be more like yeast- or yogurt-producing facilities. Even PETA, ever looking for trouble in the oddest places seems to be ok with the idea of in vitro meat, because it doesn’t require animals to be hurt or killed.
But would you eat it? Are you more or less comfortable with meat that was grown in a vat than with meat grown in an animal’s body?
A recent article in the journal Tissue Engineering proposes two ways for laboratories to grow artificial meat. One method would be to grow cells from common livestock animals like cows or chickens in large flat sheets. The thin sheets would then be stacked to resemble meat. The other proposed method would be to grow muscle cells on small beads that stretch with small changes in temperature. The tissue produced could be used to make processed meat such as hamburgers or chicken nuggets.
The research is being done at the University of Maryland and is based on experiments NASA has conducted to grow artificial meat for space missions.
But why produce artificial meat commercially?
One reason would be to make meat healthier for the consumer. Meat contains a lot of omega-6 fatty acid, which is good, but not in large amounts. The omega-6 fatty acids could be replaced with omega-3 fatty acids which are more beneficial.
Another reason is that raising livestock has a huge environmental impact. Livestock require millions of gallons of water, large amounts of land, and produce huge amounts of waste. The use of artificial meat would help to protect the environment by potentially reducing the number of livestock needed to meet the demands for meat.
Further, the production and consumption of meat has many additional potential issues including meat-borne pathogens and contaminants, antibiotic-resistant bacteria due to the routine use of antibiotics in livestock, and inhumane treatment of farm animals.
The author of the paper, University of Maryland doctoral student Jason Matheny, sees so many advantages in the production of artificial meat that he joined several other scientists in starting a nonprofit, New Harvest, to advance the idea.
Would you eat artificial meat?