Above: Image © anyaivanova, iStockphoto

Someday, your children may eat meat that is very different from the meat you eat. They will be able to get pork without the pig and beef without the cow. The butchers of the future will sell meat that has never been part of a living animal. Instead, meat will be made from cultured cells. In other words, it will be grown outside the body, instead of on an animal.

Researchers have almost succeeded in developing technology that would make cultured meat affordable to mass produce. Someday soon, it could be on supermarket shelves.

Most importantly, the meat of the future will be sustainable, with minimal environmental impact. It will be continually produced with limited resources and at no point in the process will it be necessary to kill animals!

Did you know? Bioreactors are giant tanks like those used to make yogurt and beer. Scientists are studying how they could use them to culture satellite cells for producing in vitro meat.

Where does meat come from today?

Most meat products available today do not come from animals that spend their days leisurely grazing on sun-kissed farms. Instead, these products come from factory farms, where thousands of animals are crammed together. Animals are sometimes deprived of sunlight, natural food, and even the ability to move.

But animal welfare is just one concern with factory farms. They also use huge amounts of resources. As a result, these farms contribute to environmental problems like deforestation and global warming. And because they rely on antibiotics to keep the animals healthy, they can also contribute to the development of drug-resistant superbugs.

For all these reasons, some people choose not to eat factory-farmed meat. Many of them become vegetarians or vegans, shunning meat or all animal products. Others are looking to science and technology for a way to love the chicken and eat it, too.

Did you know? The first cultured beef burger was publicly eaten in 2013. It was made from 20,000 muscle strips produced by Mark Post and his research team at Maastricht University.

How to prepare cultured meat

Cultured meat is grown in vitro. That’s a fancy way of saying “outside the body.” But the process is actually very similar to what happens inside an animal’s body. For example, here’s a six-step process for making a sausage without the pig:

  1. Start with a pig biospy. In other words, take a little tissue sample from a living animal. Don't worry, it won’t hurt very much! You have probably survived a biopsy at some point in your life. After all, your blood is a kind of tissue, so a blood test is an example of a biopsy!
  2. Next, separate the satellite cells from the muscles they surround. Whether you’re a pig or a person, satellite cells help repair muscles after exercise. When you “feel the burn”, these guys get to work! Satellite cells are like little Ditto Pokemon in your body. They can become different types of cells and play many different roles.
  3. Now you need to give the Dittos something to eat. Cells and microorganisms don’t have mouths, so they need to be soaked in their food, which is called a “growth medium”. It’s also their bed, nursery, and toilet. When they are placed in the right medium, the satellites cells will start to multiply.
  4. Once there are enough cells, you can start to grow them on scaffolds, frames, and moulds. This will cause the satellites to grow into fibres, and these fibres will bundle themselves into real muscles.
  5. “Use it or lose it!” Muscles need exercise to be firm and, well, muscular. But muscles grown outside of an animal don’t get exercise. So instead, mechanical forces and electricity are applied to bulk them up. Scientists are also looking at using tiny beads of chitosan, a substance found in crab and shrimp shells, as microscopic exercise equipment. This material shrinks and expands with temperature changes, giving the cultured cells a workout.
  6. Now you’re ready to grind up the cultured meat with some nutrients and seasonings. Cook it up and enjoy your meal!

But not so fast... High-tech meat makers still face a big challenge. Meat should be thick, or at least three-dimensional. Currently, meat produced on growth media is no more that 200 micrometres (or 0.2 millimetres) thick. Any thicker and the cells on the inside wouldn’t be able to keep growing.

Given that a human hair is between 17 and 180 micrometres thick, you can imagine the difference between a 200-micrometre film of muscle and a thick, juicy steak! However, scientists are working on the problem. They’re trying to emulate natural capillaries, which supply the muscles inside an animal’s body, using technology similar to 3D printers and cotton candy machines.

Did you know? The first cultured beef burgers cost about $325,000 to make. But if they start to be mass produced, they should only cost cost a few dollars.

The bigger picture

Of course, “fake” meat is nothing new. However, most fake meats you can buy are made from plant proteins. Because cultured meat would be grown using real animal tissue, it would taste and feel more like the real thing.

Many common foods, including yogurt and beer, are already produced from cell cultures. And genetically-engineered microorganisms have been the main source of common animal proteins like insulin and rennet for a while. Using these microorganisms to grow meat is just an expansion of a well-established concept.

However, there is the “yuck” factor. People happily replaced animals in other areas, like transportation, when better technology emerged. You don’t see many people in the city commuting to work on a horse anymore, do you? But people just aren’t as excited about replacing farmed animals with “in vitro meat”. The idea will definitely take some getting used to!

In fact, cultured meat is just one part of a larger movement called cellular agriculture. Organizations like New Harvest are working toward a bioeconomy where animal products can be made cell cultures instead of animals. Some companies are working on simple foods like milk and egg whites. Others are trying to produce things like in vitro shark fin and cultured rhino horn, synthetic spider silk, and see-through leather!

Products like these could help protect endagered species, reduce the environmental impact of agriculture, and prevent animal suffering. They would also be more consistent and customizable than the animal products that are currently used. You could even eat meat from extinct animals! Mammoth, anyone?

One day, perhaps sooner than you think, cultured bacon could be no more out of place on the breakfast table than a bowl of yogurt!

Learn More

About culturing animal cells for food:

Cost of lab-grown burger patty drops from $325,000 to $11.36 (2015)
B. Crew, Science alert

Cultured beef process (2013)
Cultured Beef

In vitro burgers (2013)
S. Rahman, CurioCity by Let’s Talk Science

Food: A taste of things to come? (2010)
N. Jones, Nature 468

About other uses for cultured animal cells:

BioPrinting Breakout (2015)
D. Kolesky, The Baltimore Under Ground Science Space

Would synthetic horn protect or hurt the rhino? (2015)
A. Fronda, World Finance

Leather and Meat without Killing Animals (2013)

Introduction to Animal Cell Culture (2008)
J. A. Ryan, Corning Incorporated

About sustainable agriculture:

Uyen Utony Nguyen


Coming from the sadder end of the curve of education in Vietnam – a country where studying STEM subjects were more about passing exams than knowledge – I fully understand how dry and void of creativity or anything human they might seem. So, I am here to stand witness that you can discover the beauty of science and technology on your own, just like I did, and enjoy every minute of it. As a student of Food Science and Technology who got in by accident and got out totally in love, I hope to share with you some sneak peeks about how close science and technology are to you, not just up in spaceships to Mars but down to the Mars you eat, and that's something to be glad about!

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