The world’s first test-tube hamburger, created in a Dutch laboratory by growing muscle fibres from bovine stem cells, will be ready to grill in October, scientists believe.
“I am planning to ask Heston Blumenthal [the celebrity chef] to cook it,” Mark Post, leader of the artificial meat project at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, told the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Vancouver.Researchers believe that meat grown in factories, rather than on farms, will be a more sustainable and less environmentally harmful source of food. Live cattle and pigs are only 15 per cent efficient at converting vegetable proteins to meat from the grass and cereals they eat.
“If we can raise the efficiency from 15 to 50 per cent by growing meat in the lab, that would be a tremendous leap forward,” Professor Post said. Starting with bovine stem cells, the Dutch researchers have grown muscle fibres up to 3cm long and 0.5mm thick. The fibres are tethered and exercised as they grow, like real muscles, by bending and stretching in the culture dishes. They feed on a broth of vegetable proteins and other nutrients, equivalent to the grass or grain diet of cattle.
At present the fibres are a pallid yellowish-pink colour, rather than the red of raw ground beef, because they do not contain blood, but Prof Post plans to improve their appearance.
Patrick Brown, biochemistry professor at Stanford University in California, told the AAAS that global meat consumption was expected to double by 2050, yet livestock farming already accounted for 18 per cent of man-made greenhouse gas emissions and threatened biodiversity worldwide.
To provide fat, an essential element in real burgers, bovine fat cells are also being grown in the lab. They will be minced in with the muscle fibres.
“We started this project about six years ago, and I expect it will be another 10 to 20 years before we can mass-produce our meat,” Prof Post said.
An anonymous individual has financed the Maastricht project with a €250,000 grant. He is expected to contribute further funds after the planned production of a “proof of concept” burger from the lab-grown muscle in October.