Tech Tuesday: What is cultured meat?


artificialmeatdimitri
Photo by Dimitri Rodriguez |

Photo Illustration | Cultured meat, or artificial meat grown in a laboratory, first debuted in 2013. While the first attempt had no flavor, future artificial meats may replace actual ones as an environmentally-friendly alternative.


Cultured meat, also known as lab grown meat, has made waves in recent years, being called disgusting by some and a potential savior to the environment by others.

The meat was first unveiled as a beef burger by a team of scientists at Maastricht University led by Mark Post in 2013. It was the most expensive burger ever made, with a cost of $330,000, according to The Washington Post.

This meat was unveiled with the promise that it will soon turn up in supermarkets alongside natural meat, despite the fact that it did not have a favorable taste when it was unveiled, according to the site.

Essentially, meat is just the muscles of an animal. Muscles are made of fibers, or bundles of cells, and fats. The movement of these cells is what allows a muscle to contract and expand, according to the website for the Exploratorium, a public learning laboratory in San Francisco.

When an animal is slaughtered, the muscles stop getting oxygen from the blood and begin to break down sugars, creating acids. The amount of acid in meat determines how moist or dry it will be, and freezing meat stops this process, according to the site.

When meat is cooked, the proteins in it break down from the heat and generally become looser, releasing water in the process, according to the site.

Cultured meat has to be comparable in texture and structure to natural meat, and is produced by first choosing the cow breeds that whose meat will be produced. Post took stem cells from two cows and grew them in plates, according to The Guardian.

These cells were grown into 20,000 muscle fibers in individual culture wells in a large culture plate. They were suspended in a growth medium of serum extracted from cow fetuses and antibiotics, according to the site.

Over a few weeks, the cells grew into gray, hoop-like proteins. They were removed from the well, cut open and straightened out by hand. The fibers were pressed together and colored with beetroot juice, forming the first artificial meat, according to the site.

After this point, ingredients like bread crumbs and saffron were added to turn the meat into a burger, just like any other beef burger, according to the site.

The process of growing the fibers was difficult, as keeping the cells well-nourished, healthy and free of contaminants has been an issue for scientists trying to make artificial tissues for a decade, according to Gizmodo.

Unfortunately, the burger did not have a decent taste, being considered too lean and “unnatural,” according to the site.

Moving forward, Post’s group is working on culturing fatty tissue to add to the flavor of the meat. This area largely uses methods that rely on steroids, something not desirable for a consumer, so Post had to find more natural ways to grow them, according to the site.

Eventually, they hope to bring together both the muscle fibers and fatty tissues and grow them together to make the process more efficient, according to the site.

They also hope to improve the overall process, including changes to the medium used to grow the fibers. Fetal bovine serum is not sustainable for mass meat production, so finding an alternative in algae or bacteria would be ideal, according to the site.

Further, they hope to add iron to the meat, enhancing its flavor. Iron is found in myoglobin, a protein that brings oxygen to muscles from the blood, according to the site.

Cultured meat is kept in an oxygen-rich environment, reducing the amount of myoglobin needed to be produced by the muscle fibers. Low myoglobin production equates to low iron levels, taking away from the flavor and nutrition of the meat, according to the site.

When they find the ideal meat, the Post is determined to increase production at a larger scale. This introduces the problem of getting enough oxygen to the fibers, growing the meat in a way besides a flat sheet and keeping everything clean, according to the site.

Transitioning to cultured meat has the potential to greatly reduce emissions and save energy compared to conventionally produced meat, according to phys.org, a science news service.

Cultured meat would generate 96 percent less greenhouse emissions, up to 45 percent less energy, 99 percent less land use and 96 percent less water use, according to the site.

Traditional techniques require 100 grams of vegetables to produce only 15 grams of beef. This equates to 30 percent of the Earth’s usable surface being used as animal pastures, compared to four percent used for direct human consumption, according to The Guardian.

Although the techniques are far from perfected, cultured meat has the potential to overtake conventional meat production, and researchers are already looking into other meats like chicken and fish, according to Gizmodo.


Harshel Patel is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore majoring in molecular biology and biochemistry. He is the digital editor of The Daily Targum. He can be found on Twitter @harshel_p.


Harshel Patel

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