In August 2013, the first cultivated meat hamburger was prepared and sampled in London, England. Maastricht University Professor Mark Post created the burger–which he says is healthier for both consumers and the environment. Early this month, Post told Dutch radio 1Limburg that he expects cultivated meat to be available in supermarkets in as few as four years.
The following article, originally published by UM Magazine, appeared at the time of this experiment and explains its roots and how it works.
This autumn, closely followed by media worldwide, professor of Vascular Physiology Mark Post will cook and serve the first ‘test-tube hamburger’,made of tiny pieces of meat produced in-vitro. Will his cutting-edge research have a drastic impact on traditional meat production?
The idea is not so new, according to Post. It was around as early as the 19th century, and in 1932 Winston Churchill wrote about it in his book Thoughts and Adventures. Churchill felt it was ridiculous to kill entire animals to consume only small parts of them, and called on science to find a solution. And about eight years ago, here in the Netherlands, Willem van Eelen (now almost 90 years old) set up a research group to examine the possibilities of producing meat outside the animal. Post: “We started off with a small group of researchers from Amsterdam, Utrecht and Eindhoven. At the time, I was working one day per week in Eindhoven, and that’s how I got involved. From the beginning, I was fascinated by the concept of creating meat in a laboratory. Perhaps that’s why I was approached by the sponsor, who has been financing our project over the last year.” The sponsor, whose identity has not been revealed, contacted Post after researching similar projects all over the world, and ultimately chose to finance Post’s research. His identity will most likely remain a secret until the official presentation of the hamburger in a few months.
How it’s done
Whether you like the idea or not, how it is done is certainly intriguing. Where do you start? “We take stem cells from tiny pieces of muscle tissue”, explains Post. “These stem cells are just sitting there, waiting to repair the muscle when it’s damaged. The stem cells have two great advantages: they reproduce very easily and in tremendous quantities, and they are tissue specific, which means that they automatically differentiate into muscle tissue. The drawback is that they don’t infinitely reproduce, so you’ll always need new stemcell donors. This means that you’ll still need animals. Not nearly as many as for regular meat production, but for hard-core vegans this solution is still unacceptable.”
These stem cells are subsequently placed in small breeding boxes that contain gel and anchor points, which will function as tendons. From then on, the stem cells do the work, says Post: “The cells organise the gel. It’s hard to believe, but first there’s a puddle of gel, and within 48 hours there’s a muscle betweenthe anchor points. And they do that all by themselves.They also build tension and they contract, which is good for the strength of the muscle. After a few weeks, we can harvest the first muscle. Once you have 3000 of those, you have enough to create a hamburger. We do the same with fat tissue, and at a later stage, we mix the in-vitro meat with the in-vitro fat in specific proportions to get a juicy and tasty result.”
Post and his colleagues are still working on the finer details, such as the colour of the burger. Now, the meat looks a bit pale, but they may be able to change this by having the cells produce sufficient myoglobin, the substance that colours our blood red.
Why it’s done
Few of us realise it, but 40 years from now, meat will be an exclusive and expensive product, only available to the happy few. Meat demand will double worldwide, particularly in emerging economies, and the world population will be nine billion instead of the seven billon that it is now. “Already, 70% of the world’s farmland is used for stock breeding”, says Post. “When meat demand increases, there will be a gigantic shortage of meat. Meat producers will be tempted to use even more vegetable proteins for stock breeding, which will put yet greater pressure on the provision of world food. We’re heading for major problems in this area in the coming decades. So, if we can produce laboratory meat this way, only more efficiently and with a smaller carbon footprint, this could be a solution.”
Then there’s also the environmental effect. “Stock breeding is responsible for a large percentage of greenhouse gas emissions. We’re also concerned about animal wellbeing and the spread of diseases caused by high animal concent tions in the livestock industry. To me, it’s important that people realise there will be a meat crisis. So far, meat prices have been kept artificially low. Just think: in the past ten years, the prices of cereals have exploded. Cereals make up 70% of forage. The fact that forage producers are subsidised keeps meat prices low. But trust me, that can’t go on forever. The question is not whether we should come up with alternatives for meat and stock breeding. The question is which alternatives, and how quickly we can deliver them.” Post and his group have delivered proof of concept. The next stage is to achieve efficient and costeffective production. Perhaps the official presentation this autumn will inspire a new secret sponsor…
Mark Post (1957) has worked at the KNAW Interuniversity Institute of the Netherlands, and subsequently in the USA (Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA; Dartmouth Medical School, Hanover, NH). He returned to the Netherlands in 2002 as professor of Vascular Physiology at Maastricht University. Since 2004, he has been head of the Physiology Department.