Photo via flickr by art makes me smile
Molecular biologist Bernard Roelen of Utrecht University is working on making pig embryonic stem cells into a slice of sausage.
Placed in a nutrient bath, the embryonic cells divide and grow, changing along the way. Some are just motionless blobs, but others pulse to an eerie rhythm, having spontaneously transformed into heart muscle despite Roelen’s desire to keep them in their undifferentiated state.
Unfortunately, Roelen’s cultures only survive a few months before they fail to reproduce because of genetic problems—their chromosomes become deformed or cells end up with too many copies.
In the future, meat-growers may forgo the dish and culture stem cells on an edible, three-dimensional scaffold, and, with the right chemical signal, they would transform into sumptuous fibers of skeletal muscle protein. Roelen’s colleagues at the Eindhoven University of Technology are even working on ways to “exercise” tissue through electrical stimulation to give them a more natural texture.
Molecular microbiologist Klaas Hellingwerf of the University of Amsterdam believes that a suitable substitute lies in a medium based on yeast or algae. He has done preliminary experiments to get genetically modified algae to produce a growth factor that will encourage Roelen’s stem cells to multiply.
Biophysicist Lee Silver, from a conversation with Sputnik Observatory:
If it happens someday that we can pick muscles off of trees, that would actually be very good for the environment. It would greatly reduce the amount of land used to grow meat. And lots of people in the world have an instinctive desire to eat meat, so this would be a way of satisfying. [Would it be organic?] [he laughs] What’s organic? But I think the biotechnology in the future, whatever you value, and society has to determine what values can be incorporated into biotechnological innovations – so if a society says, “We value non-sentient meat and we are willing to put money into the research to develop this,” then that’s how they can use biotechnology. Society says, “We value creating plants that are less polluting and don’t use pesticides, and we know it’s going to be more expensive but that’s the value we put into it that society pays for,” then that’s how you use biotechnology.
—Lee Silver, Biophysicist, Sputnik Observatory