photo by stevendepolo

From the Petri Dish to the Backyard Grill

photo by stevendepoloEven if you wanted to, you couldn’t buy test-tube hot dogs for your Memorial Day barbecue, but maybe in a decade or so we’ll all be noshing on barbecued goodies raised in the sterility of a laboratory near you. Doesn’t that sound tasty? Or yucky?  For me, it’s a little bit of both.

I’m fascinated by in-vitro meat. In part, I’m drawn in by this strange intellectual and visceral war it brings out in me. The resulting meat could eventually be tasty and environmentally sustainable. At the same time, I like good, real food. I just joined a CSA. I grow herbs and vegetables. My parents each grew up on farms. I can see where science might be able to feed people with high quality meat from a lab. But, intuitively,  my body isn’t quite sure whether I’d like it. Considering how wary I used to be of “mystery meat” in school cafeterias, it’s hard to figure out whether there’s a real future for it in supermarkets and restaurants.

I love the complex cast of characters that enter the discussion of lab-grown meat: a hodge podge of scientists from stem cell researchers to engineers, animal rights activists, chefs, food activists and sustainability experts. So Michael Specter‘s New Yorker story, “Test-Tube Burgers” was right up my geeky alley.

Lab-grown meat is a fascinating tissue-engineering problem, with all the same challenges of building organs in a laboratory for transplant. It has all the great drama of an automated architectural design challenge. What structures, conditions and chemicals do you need to allow a few seed cells to produce the marbled muscle that becomes good meat. The biggest scientific challenge is producing blood vessels to feed the tissue and create meat-like texture.

Specter’s story connects all of the threads of science, food, sustainability and even “the yuck factor” right back to the Petri dish. If you have a chance this weekend, it’s worth the read. I dare you to read it while the burgers are on the grill.

Photo Credit: stevendepolo on flickr

Where my interest in in-vitro meat began: I wrote this short item for Discover about 5 years ago.

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2 thoughts on “From the Petri Dish to the Backyard Grill”

  1. This seems like the next progressive step in the meat production world. With the high environmental and economical costs associated with live stock to be able to produce the “essential” parts seems a logical step. Just as long as farms don’t disappear entirely. But I guess we’d get a whole new class of “factory meats”.

    I’ll finish by asking if vegetarians can have lab grown products why shouldn’t meat eaters too?

    1. I haven’t had a chance to look at it closely yet, but I’m guessing you might have seen this new study that compares the environmental impact of conventional livestock versus lab-grown meat. I think it’s a good idea as long as scientists can work out the kinks. Right now lab meat is still incredibly expensive to produce, and they don’t have the tissue engineering worked out to give it texture that compares to a pork chop or steak. My guess is that those issues will come in time, and if so, you’re probably right, factory meat could be its own class in the supermarket. But it does beg the question about what the consumer will do. Given the choice, will a person in the supermarket choose “factory meat,” farm-raised meat (likely priced at a premium), or bypass meat entirely? It might boil down to an interesting social science and economics question in the end.

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