Tarheel Health Portal/In Vitro Meat
In vitro meat is the idea of manufacturing meat in vitro, or outside of a living organism, to be used for consumption. Also known as cultured meat or cultured beef, in vitro meat uses muscle cells painlessly harvested from a living animal and nurtured in a growth medium. The cells multiply to create muscle tissue (biologically exactly the same as cow tissue) which is then ground up and served. As we approach 2050, the world's demand for meat will increase over 70% due to the rapidly growing world population and it is unsure if innovations in livestock management will be able to support a production level able to meet the growing demands. As part of Generation Y, students at UNC are very likely to be personally affected by this looming food shortage at some point in their lives. Theoretically, the process of producing meat in vitro would be efficient enough to supply the global demand for meat while having significant financial, health, animal welfare and environmental advantages over traditional meat.
The basic idea of growing meat in vitro is not new. In fact, during the early 1930’s, the French scientist Alexis Carrel attracted attention to this topic by having kept chicken tissue alive for over 20 years, to which Winston Churchill wrote that in the future, “we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium." The unfortunate news for IVM is that it is not being developed quickly enough. So far, money for research into the topic has been hard to obtain. There have been several notable experiments since the early 2000’s, but it was the work of Mark Post and his team at Maastricht University (subsidized by Google founder Sergey Brin) who presented the world’s first IVM hamburger to the world in 2013. Their presentation showed that creating meat in a lab can be done in principle and helped to attract attention and money for further research efforts.
Techniques of Meat Production
The technology of culturing beef, in theory, is very simple. Scientists start with a small piece of fresh muscle, obtained through biopsy, and separate and obtain stem cells from the fibers. These stem cells are induced to multiply copiously by being cultured in bacterial based growth serums. The cultured cells are then anchored to a temporary biodegradable scaffolds that applies tension and exercises the cells, stimulating maturation of muscle and protein production. Now thin strips of muscle fiber, the cells are harvested and combined together with 20,000 other strips, creating an edible burger.
For culturing of meat, several stem cell types are of interest. The first and foremost are myoblast or satellite cells. However, the drawback to these cells is the difficulty in maintaining the replicative state of the cells in cell culture. Embryonic stem cells are a theoretical alternative at this point, as scientists have not yet been able to keep embryonic stem cells from pigs and cows in an undifferentiated state. These pluripotent cells have the potential to differentiate, or develop into almost any cell in the body. This means that under the right circumstances, a stem cell that is isolated from an embryo can produce almost all of the cells in the body.
In Vitro Meat Production Techniques
Scaffold based IVM production systems differ in shape, composition and characteristics, but they all involve isolation of embryonic myoblasts or adult skeletal muscle satellite cells from the farm animals like cattle, sheep, pig, etc., which would be allowed to grow inside a bioreactor using a growth medium. Dr. Post used this technique in producing his IVM hamburger.
The self-organizing method consists of animal tissue that is minced and centrifuged to form pellets, then placed in Petri dishes containing a nutrient medium and left to grow. This process utilizes skeletal muscle tissue and closely resembles the process of growing muscle cells in the living animal, but is not as effective as producing substantial growth in muscle tissue and fibers as the scaffolding method.
A study was published in 2011 with the goal of estimating the energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, land use, and water for industrial scale production of cultured meat. The results of this environmental impact study (see Figure 1 in article) show that cultured meat production emits considerably greenhouse gas, and uses a minimal fraction of land and water, as compared to other forms of meat production. Even though these results are astounding, the study was based on many assumptions, and therefore the calculations have a sizable amount of uncertainty.
The Yuck Factor
For IVM to be publicly accepted and industrialized, the meat must first mimic conventional meat and be produced efficiently. A large hurdle is the “yuck factor” of consumer acceptance. Scientists have to figure out a way to diminish the public’s fear of consuming meat grown in a lab. Part of the solution is recreating the physical sensations of conventional meat such as appearance, smell, texture and most importantly, taste. The latter is the most difficult to reproduce, with more than 1000 water soluble and fat derived components making up the specific taste of meat and the science of taste underdeveloped. To improve the product, scientists have been coming up with innovations such as using natural and edible scaffolds made from biomaterials that are then seeded with muscle and fat cells to produce meat exhibiting conventional sensorial characteristics. With the ability to control the quantity and quality of fat in the meat, nutrition-related diseases, such as cardiovascular diseases, can be reduced. Taste profiles of the meat can be altered and customized for consumers.
Eating healthy foods is a concern of many college students, but many of us do not know exactly what's in the foods we are eating at times. When it comes to meat, we have general characterizations: conventional meat, organic meat, natural meat, and grass fed meat. Each category comes with its own list of issues ranging from animal care (or lack thereof) to added hormones or GMOs. In vitro meat is produced without any genetic manipulation and can be tailored to the desired taste of the customer. Plus, it's produced in a sterile environment, neutralizing any chances for contamination or spread of disease (such as Salmonella or E. coli). By creating meat in the lab, scientists can guarantee that there are not any extra scary chemicals or hormones that we have come to fear. The same can not be said for the majority of meats nowadays.
Consumers still have objections and hesitations about the "unnaturalness" of the product. There is even the idea that the technological solutions of IVM amount to “moral cowardice – choosing a quick fix over genuine moral work." However, the “unnaturalness” of the meat may be exactly what we’re looking for in an age when producing meat “naturally” is raising so many issues. In fact, the animal rights organization PETA hosted a challenge in 2008 with a grand prize of $1 million going to the first laboratory to use chicken cells to create commercially viable in vitro meat . With a prosperous market of IVM acting as a technological fix to conventional meat production, animal suffering could be eliminated. To satisfy the opposition, IVM may need to be developed in more morally attractive ways.
While there is no research being done on in vitro meat here at UNC, the following sites offer insight to current and past projects:
To learn more about nutrition programs offered at UNC, visit these sites:
- McLeod, Anni. (2011). World livestock 2011 - livestock in food security. http://www.cabdirect.org/abstracts/20113401059.html?freeview=true
- van der Weele, Cor. (2015). In Vitro Meat. http://link.springer.com/referenceworkentry/10.1007%2F978-94-007-0929-4_106
- Post, Mark. J. (2014). Cultured beef: medical technology to produce food. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/jsfa.6474/full
- Post, Mark. J. (2012). Cultured meat from stem cells: Challenges and prospects. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0309174012001210
- Datar, I and Betti, M. (2010). Possibilities for an in vitro meat production system. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1466856409001222
- Bhat ZF, Kumar S, Fayaz H. (2015). In vitro meat production: Challenges and benefits over conventional meat production. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S209531191460887X
- Tuomisto HL and Teixeira de Mattos, M Joost. (2011). Environmental impacts of cultured meat production. http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es200130u
- PETA. (2014). PETA’s ‘In Vitro’ Chicken Contest. http://www.peta.org/features/vitro-meat-contest/