IN VITRO MEAT
WILL FUTURE MEAT BE SERVED IN A PETRI DISH?
To some, eating food grown in a laboratory sounds as appealing as eating a spoonful of chemicals. This is why Andras Forgacs, CEO of the company Modern Meadows, plans to introduce the public to lab made animal products by first making your next leather bag.
Based on the work of his father, scientist Gabor Forgacs, the technique of printing leather is similar to the principle of 3D printing. Clusters of cells are turned into a liquid ‘bio ink’ and spread out in layers together with supporting ‘bio paper’. By arranging the cells in a shape that mimics the natural organ, their natural ability to form complex tissue can be used to produce real organs. After several days the cells fuse, the ‘bio paper’ disintegrates and the cells are treated to develop into an organ. By this principle, a patch of skin can be produced by layering skin cells and ‘bio paper’ on a flat surface, letting the cells naturally fuse and then treating them to develop into skin. Through traditional methods this skin can then be processed into leather.
Producing skin in the lab could be beneficial for designers. Apart from not having natural imperfections, like scars and hair, there are few limits to how the final leather product can look. Forgacs lists both transparent or opaque leather as well as the possibility to alter the softness, durability, breathability, elasticity and pattern as some future possibilities in a recent TED 2013 interview. He even goes on to predict that the leather can be directly grown in the shape of a wallet or car seat.
There are also environmental and health reasons for growing leather in a lab. To maintain our current animal consumption, we will need to keep 100 billion land living animals by 2050. These animals occupy a third of Earth’s ice-free land, drink 8% of global water and create 18% of greenhouse gases and, live in such close quarters that they generate disease.
One of Modern Meadows’ end goals is to be able to sell meat to the everyday meat consumer. There is a lot of money to be made in producing meat, since the demand will increase with the growing population. In 2011 the scientist Gabor Forgacs, Andras’ father, attended TEDMED where he explained how he grows cow meat in his laboratory, after which he sampled his own product on stage.
What did it taste like, you wonder? We won’t know until Modern Meadow’s meat is available in supermarkets. But as an inkling, the world’s first lab grown hamburger was sampled by two food experts during a recent event in London.
After tasting the burger, nutritional scientist Hanni Ruetzler’s verdict was that the burger had a “perfect consistency” and “quite intense flavor” and adding: “This is meat to me. It's not falling apart." Her main complains were that the patty was too lean to be as juicy as a cow patty. She also commended that she missed salt and pepper. The food writer Josh Schonwald said: "The mouthfeel is like meat. I miss the fat, there's a leanness to it, but the general bite feels like a hamburger.”
Unlike Gabor Forgacs’ meat, the sampled burger was grown from stem cells from adult cows. The stem cells, which were on their way to become muscle, are multiplied and in time join together and form muscle fibre. The fibres are grown on a frame, to be able to practice their natural ability to flex, which mimics the natural development of muscle.
The scientist behind the burger, Professor Mark Post of Maastricht University, thinks that the ‘yuck factor’ of a non-natural burger can be swayed by marketing. It seems like Modern Meadows agree. They will spend at least the next 10 years on perfecting their products and getting approval of this new type of lab made food from the US government before it can be sold in supermarkets. However, for leather production Modern Meadows see no such restrictions and hope to tempt you with lab grown accessories in no time. View more of Nathalie Jonsson's light science reads here.
UPDATE: In 2014 the website Next Nature released an 'In Vitro Meat Cookbook' to show us how we can cook lab grown meat in the near-future. Check it out here, be inspired, and stop buying massed produced beef.