Where’s the beef (and fat)? Are you ready for a juicy ‘test tube’ burger?

It’s the coolest thing–especially if you enjoy the taste of beef, or try to eat it sometimes as a good source of protein, iron, vitamin B-12, and other nutrients, yet hate the fact that animals are bred and killed for it, with massive environmental impact to boot. I’m talking about cultured, or in vitro, meat.

Created in a two-year, $325,000 project financed by Sergey Brin (one of Google’s founders), in vitro burgers were taste tested a year and a half ago in London to mixed reactions. Some tasters liked the burgers, some liked the taste but not the idea of its unnatural origin and many said they liked it, but only because of the environmental benefits they offer.

At $30 per pound, in vitro beef is not economically viable at present, but it’s expected to be viable within ten years. Between now and then, if it’s really going to be popular, developers will need to work out a few kinks that affect the taste and texture. Otherwise, the “where’s the beef” catchphrase–introduced by the Wendy’s fast-food chain, but popularized in former Vice President Walter Mondale’s 1984 presidential campaign challenge of President Ronald Reagan–could be excavated and used by in vitro meat critiques.

But, if developers do succeed making cultured beef taste and feel exactly like eating natural beef, the idea would most certainly sell. For now, given that the state-of-the art in vitro burger is still in the laboratory stage, we shouldn’t be worried about surveys showing that people would be motivated only by in vitro beef’s societal benefits. Eventually, they’ll seek it out, not only to do good, but also because they like it.

How is cultured beef made and what are the benefits?

Beef is mostly muscle tissue, which consists of long, narrow cells, each loaded with thousands of protein fibers called myofibrils. Muscles contain stem cells capable of developing into mature muscle
Screen-shot-2011-06-27-at-10.16.01-AMcells inside a muscle (in vivo), but if harvested they also can mature in laboratory cell culture (in vitro). Additionally, while reproduction of muscle stem cells in vitro to produce large quantities as a supply from which muscle cells can be produced continuously has been challenging, new methods have made this goal more achievable.

Thus, eventually, it should be possible to mass produce animal muscle cells using a fairly small number of animals as a stem cell source. This would be a major environmental advantage, since large cattle populations require enormous amounts of land, and release high quantities of methane, an even more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. At the same time, stem cell harvesting from muscles can be performed on living animals, with no need to cut short an animal’s natural lifespan.

But a natural muscle contains more than just muscle tissue. Within and surrounding the muscle is connective tissue. Connective tissue includes fat tissue, which has a big impact on how meat tastes. Fat cells come from stem cells different from the stem cells that give rise to muscle cells. The fat in beef has negative health consequences, because it includes a lot of saturated fat. But culturing muscle stem cells produces only mature muscle cells, which are almost completely protein.

In vitro beef is 100 percent lean, but with no connective tissue to hold it together it comes out of the lab as narrow strips of muscle fiber–so narrow that 20,000 strips are needed for a 140 gram (5 ounce) burger. Because these strips of muscle have no fat at all, the chef who prepared the burgers tested in London did so by frying the cultured meat strips in huge amounts of butter, along with breadcrumbs and salt, plus colorings to make the meat look and taste more like natural beef. That is not an exact simulation.

To make in vitro beef more like natural beef, fat cells have to be cultured along with muscle cells. The tissues developing as a result of the culturing have to come out as a palatable mix of protein and fat. Also, by working in types of connective tissue other than fat, researchers could synthesize steaks as well as burger meat.

It may sound like a very tall order, and it is, but the benefits can be substantial. For, in addition to the environmental and ethical draw, designing the fat content, along with the protein, would be a major health advantage. Instead of the usual fat that’s in beef (containing a large fraction of saturated fatty acids), the test tube version could be synthesized with a mixture of fats, containing fatty acids of our choosing. For instance, it could be designed with a high proportion of monounsaturated fatty acids and omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids –in other words, like salmon. Therefore, it would be as healthy as salmon, but with the taste and feel of beef. That’s the potential here.

“Test tube” beef offers the possibility of ending the breeding of livestock for slaughter–and the ability to produce in vitro meat on future space colonies, where farming livestock will be unthinkable. All of that should make test tube beef irresistible to anyone in a position to drive the technology forward. Get the taste right and it has every chance of being a huge hit.

David Warmflash is an astrobiologist, physician, and science writer. Follow @CosmicEvolution to read what he is saying on Twitter.

20 thoughts on “Where’s the beef (and fat)? Are you ready for a juicy ‘test tube’ burger?”

  1. Wow. Usually I’m pretty impressed and an avid supporter of GLP. But this article is ridiculous. There are hundreds of co-products made from livestock animals that Mr. Petri dish will not be able to effectively, economically, or efficiently replace (to include the damn butter the “chef” used to make this stuff tasty! SMH).
    The war on cows is bizarre and misinformed. I’m disappointed GLP in seeing you support it. Agriculture OVERALL contributes about 8% of all greenhouse gases. Of that 8% cattle are accountable for about 7%. 80% comes from emissions, industry and chemical companies.
    Eat your petri food if you WANT, but let’s not pretend it’s doing anything of consequence sustainability wise.

    • Surely, what you call the “war on cows” is in fact a pretty good description of the current livestock industry? Please show me a cow that’s in support of us eating beef!

      Also, keep in mind that we’re committed to cutting green house gases by at least 80% – if we are to achieve that target, the current levels of emissions from cattle are simply unsustainable.

      • The “war on cows” is referring to the article I linked. Please read that and then come back. The levels of emissions from humans are the problem pal. There have been great herds of roaming, farting ruminants (see buffalo) long before the industrial revolution began, and our addiction to oil. So lets not point waggy fingers of indignation at cattle. Its just mean.

        And no, I know few healthy beings that want to die, but life’s tough, and none of us get out alive.

        The little diagram I made below compares the lives of some modern livestock, and most humans. Guessing you’re in a CHuFO. If you have more questions please come over to: http://www.askthefarmers.com. My cattle lovin’ friends there can tell you more than you ever wanted to know about the critters. And the practices they use to raise them.

        • The reason farmers are cutting down the amazon to raise cows is because they want more space to grow cattle. That land had no cattle before. The population of cattle/ruminants is far higher than they were pre-farming and even more so post industrialisation.

          • Maybe like I say, last I read farmers in S. America were being pushed into unsustainable practices to meet the demands for the Quinoa foodie fad. Don’t have time this morning, but read the article on the Huffing and Pissed (Huffington Post) about a year ago.
            I’d be curious to read your source. Legitimate news source would be fine or valid research only please.

          • Not here. Cattle graze in forests and, in fact, managed grazing is a critical ecological tool for maintenance and wildlife prevention. Given the level of drought we’re confronting, grazing is going to be more critical for creating what our brave, wildland firefighters call “defensible space”.

            Besides, last I knew farmers in So. America were being pushed into unsustainable practices to grow Quinoa, ironically.

    • 1. There is no god damn reason laboratory production of butter would be impossible.
      2. Sustainability is more than just the amount emission: the things you could use the area now used to herd cows for outweighs all benefits you’d get from the other fields. (admitted some chem companies and such also take very large surface area but as whole it’s still on different scale compared to livestock)
      3. This has all been scientifically possible for last 15 years. Why hasn’t the engineering part proceeded faster? because it’s so damn hard to accept that meat produced in a glass plate could be the same damn meat that’s produced in a skin sack. IF the population wasn’t literally trying to block advancement in GMO and bioculturing fields we’d be well on our way with replacing all traditional agricultural methods in next 20 years.

      Btw as I recall Mc donalds USA alone does some 18k cows alone per year and all their products could be technically replaced with this. Like any mince meat products could and as I recall they add to most of the meat market.

      So can we please stop understating advancements in a field that could literally change our whole agricultural industry during next half a decade?

      • And as I recall McDonalds along with many burger chains uses old cows for ground beef, those that have fulfilled there usefullness as milk cows or beef mothers. The product is cheaper, lower in fat and shrinks less on cooking than prime beef. Until you replace dairy, steaks and prime roast then burger cows are still going to be there.

      • Good morning Ed. The 8% comes from the EPA report cited in the article I linked. EPA often doesn’t enamor itself to ag. The figure you have may be right under that percent. As cows account for 7% of that 8%. Add other livestock and they may account for 14% of all ag emissions. But we’re still talking fractions of percentages. Its still a fact that most emissions come from metropolis (with sub-burbs being the worst sustainability wise). No matter how hard they try to point the finger at the hands that feed them

        For what its worth, on farm energy production has increased 144% between the 2007-12 census. I’d like to see any other industry say the same.


  2. The problem is, growing mammalian cells in culture requires mammalian serum, usually Fetal Calf Serum or Fetal Foal Serum, in the culture medium. Therefore in order to produce ‘test tube beef’ you have to slaughter a lot of cows or mares in late pregnancy to harvest the fetal serum. Therefore, the idea that ‘test tube beef’ is more humane, or that there will be no need to raise livestock for slaughter, is not only incorrect, but downright ludicrous.

          • Well it hasn’t been replaced yet. Until a suitable alternative is found, the humaneness of muscle cells cultured without it is a purely academic question.

  3. The science behind it is really interesting. Maybe in a future it’ll be a smart way to produce food on a limited resources planet. Maybe for mars colonization, or who knows what. But currently it makes no sense at all as technology, except for animalist religions. It’s like making artificial bacon for kosher meals, just because it is written anywhere…

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