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Meat Your Maker

Nov 22, 2012

When you sit down on Thursday and give thanks, start perhaps with the fact you’re not eating the (Petri) dish above. At least not yet.

What you’re looking at is not “synthetic” meat, but in vitro or cultured. Apparently, there’s a difference. Synthetic meat typically refers to imitation edible animal tissue made from a vegetable source, often soy or gluten. In vitro meat (which has other monikers, including the less-than-appetizing “shmeat”) is grown from scratch using muscle cells.

“This is real meat because it is made of the same cells that meat is composed of,” said Gabor Forgacs, one of the men behind Modern Meadow, a company with plans to use three-dimensional bioprinting to eventually produce in vitro edible meat products. (The company will start first with simple leather products because it’s easier to create and grow skin cells than muscle.)

While there’s no obvious demand for in vitro meat at the moment, its proponents say there is a need. Natural meat – the kind that originates from actual animals – is increasingly expensive, ecologically speaking. Using conventional methods, it takes 6.7 pounds of cattle feed, 52.8 gallons of water, 74.5 square feet of land and 1,036 BTUs of fossil fuel energy (enough energy to power a microwave oven for 18 minutes) to produce a quarter-pound of hamburger, according to the Journal of Animal Science.

In vitro meat production requires only a fraction of those resources.

However, don’t go looking for a lab-grown steak anytime soon. Technological advances have made bioprinting – a process in which biological elements like cells in a liquid form can be laid down upon each other in complex, three-dimensional formulations – more feasible, but nobody’s making anything yet that resembles a turkey breast or pork chop. Indeed, Modern Meadows short-term goal is to print edible slivers of meat two centimeters by one centimeter, less than half a millimeter thick.

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