Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Test-tube Burger

Last time I looked ground beef cost about $4.50/lb.  You can really step out though and get your chuck with minimal fat and it may cost you about $6/lb. While the patties these produce on the barbie are healthier, they can taste pretty leathery. Today two people tasted a hamburger that cost about $1,000,000/lb, not because every molecule of fat has been removed, but because the beef was grown in a petri dish.  I think a leathery taste is the least of their worries...

This is a 5 oz patty consisting of ground beef grown from cow stem cells in culture.  The cells were grown with collagen, a connective tissue that encouraged the cells to produce muscle fibers.  The Petri dishes containing the cells were electrically stimulated to "bulk up" the fibers leading some wags to christen the resulting dish "Frankenburger." This process provides 0.02in (0.5mm) thick strips of pinkish yellow lab-grown tissue. To make the patty, 20,000 of these rather unappetizing morsels are required together with 200 pieces of lab-grown animal fat, lending hopefully some modicum of taste; and colorants, such as beet juice and saffron to give it that "au naturel" look.

Why do this?  Head researcher Mark Post points to the unsustainability of livestock farming.  He indicates that "Meat demand is going to double in the next 40 years. Right now we are using 70% of all our agricultural capacity to grow meat through livestock." Do the math - we need alternatives.

Encouragement comes from animal rights organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (peta) who foresee the end of factory-based livestock farming typical of scenes from Food.Inc and besides, some of that membership have pretty deep pockets and can maybe even afford a test-tube burger at today’s rates.  But with the backing of the likes of Sergey Brin of Google, I suspect the cost can be driven down appreciably through industrial scale cell culture.  Still, a long road to <$10/lb!

So, maybe we’ll all get to taste a test-tube burger sometime in the future, but for me, pass the steak sauce...

By: BioTek Instruments, Peter Banks, Ph. D., Scientific Director

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