Meat from stem cells

C&I Issue 6, 2014

Stem cells could be used as an ethical and green source for meat, say scientists in the Netherlands, who believe that in the future every town or village could have its very own small-scale, cultured meat factory. Bioethics professor and biologist Van der Weele and biotechnology researcher Johannes Tramper at Wageningen University have outlined a process by which stem cell technology could be used to manufacture meat.

Cells taken from a living animal could be cultured in a nutrient-rich soup or cell bank inside a bioreactor, they say. They could then be grown in increasingly larger containers, until they are finally processed into a cake similar to minced meat. (Trends Biotech., 2014, 32, 294).

The first lab burger was made in 2013 by Mark Post, a professor of tissue engineering at Maastricht University, The Netherlands (C&I, 2013, 9, 14) and cost £250,000 to produce. To make the hamburger, Post and his team took stem cells from a cow, cultured them with nutrients and growth promoting chemicals, and then left them to multiply. After three weeks, more than a million stem cells were put into small dishes where they formed small strips of muscle. These were defrosted and turned into a patty shortly before cooking.

Van der Weele and Tramper conducted workshops and focus groups to ask people about their attitudes to this new kind of meat. A solution that everyone seemed happy with was the idea of using local farming, where pigs in backyards or animal friendly urban farms served as the living donors of muscle stem cells through biopsies. The pigs could live happy lives while their cells were being cultured in local meat factories.

‘Worries of cultured meat being unnatural, too technological, or alienating were absent here,’ says Van der Weele. ‘The idea of local production and close contact with the animals seemed to dispel these concerns.’

According to Post, meanwhile, there are many barriers before meat is produced in this way. ‘Although in the future I am sure that community based meat growing would be possible, in the end the system is likely to end up in larger scale production units,’ he says. ‘In the meantime, the main barriers we face are technical, as the technology needs to be made more efficient than the way we currently farm livestock. We need to cost-effectively create meat that is indistinguishable to what we know.’

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