Scientists turn stem cells into pork

Jan 15, 2010 By MARIA CHENG , AP Medical Writer
In this handout photo made available on Friday Jan. 15, 2010, a photomicrograph of muscle tissue is seen. The muscle fibers are seen diagonally from lower left to upper right. The blue dots are the nuclei of the cells, the yellow color is the result of an overlay (green and red) of two of the most important proteins in skeletal muscle, actin and myosin. Dutch scientists have been growing pork in a laboratory, call it pork in a petri dish, a technique to turn pig stem cells into strips of meat that scientists say could one day offer an environment-friendly alternative to raising livestock. (AP Photo/Eindhoven University of Technology/TUE)

(AP) -- Call it pork in a petri dish - a technique to turn pig stem cells into strips of meat that scientists say could one day offer a green alternative to raising livestock, help alleviate world hunger, and save some pigs their bacon.

Dutch scientists have been growing pork in the laboratory since 2006, and while they admit they haven't gotten the texture quite right (the lab-grown meat has the consistency and feel of scallop), they say the technology promises to have widespread implications for our .

"If we took the from one pig and multiplied it by a factor of a million, we would need one million fewer pigs to get the same amount of meat," said Mark Post, a biologist at Maastricht University involved in the In-vitro Meat Consortium, a network of publicly funded Dutch research institutions that is carrying out the experiments.

Several other groups in the U.S., Scandinavia and Japan are also researching ways to make meat in the laboratory, but the Dutch project is the most advanced, said Jason Matheny, who has studied alternatives to conventional meat at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore and is not involved in the Dutch research.

In the U.S., similar research was funded by NASA, which hoped astronauts would be able to grow their own meat in space. But after growing disappointingly thin sheets of tissue, NASA gave up and decided it would be better for its astronauts to simply eat vegetarian.

To make pork in the lab, Post and colleagues isolate stem cells from pigs' . They then put those cells into a nutrient-based soup that helps the cells replicate to the desired number.

So far the scientists have only succeeded in creating strips of meat about 1 centimeter (a half inch) long; to make a small pork chop, Post estimates it would take about 30 days of in the lab.

There are tantalizing health possibilities in the technology.

Fish stem cells could be used to produce healthy omega 3 fatty acids, which could be mixed with the lab-produced pork instead of the usual artery-clogging fats found in livestock meat.

"You could possibly design a hamburger that prevents heart attacks instead of causing them," Matheny said.

Post said the strips they've made so far could be used as processed meat in sausages or hamburgers. Their main problem is reproducing the protein content in regular meat: In livestock meat, protein makes up about 99 percent of the product; the lab meat is only about 80 percent protein, giving it the softer, flimsier consistency of a scallop. The rest is mostly water and nucleic acids.

None of the researchers have actually eaten the lab-made meat yet, but Post said the lower protein content means it probably wouldn't taste anything like pork.

The Dutch researchers started working with pork stem cells because they had the most experience with pigs, but said the technology should be transferable to other meats, like chicken, beef and lamb.

Some experts warn lab-made meats might have potential dangers for human health.

"With any new technology, there could be subtle impacts that need to be monitored," said Emma Hockridge, policy manager at Soil Association, Britain's leading organic organization.

As with genetically modified foods, Hockridge said it might take some time to prove the new technology doesn't harm humans. She also said organic farming relies on crop and livestock rotation, and that taking animals out of the equation could damage the ecosystem.

Some experts doubted lab-produced meat could ever match the taste of real meat.

"What meat tastes like depends not just on the genetics, but what you feed the animals at particular times," said Peter Ellis, a biochemistry expert at King's College London. "Part of our enjoyment of eating meat depends on the very complicated muscle and fat structure...whether that can be replicated is still a question."

If it proves possible, experts say growing meat in laboratories instead of raising animals on farmland would do wonders for the environment.

Hanna Tuomisto, who studies the environmental impact of food production at Oxford University said that switching to lab-produced meat could theoretically lower greenhouse gas emissions by up to 95 percent. Both land and water use would also drop by about 95 percent, she said.

"In theory, if all the meat was replaced by cultured meat, it would be huge for the environment," she said. "One animal could produce many thousands of kilograms of meat." In addition, lab meat can be nurtured with relatively few nutrients like amino acids, fats and natural sugars, whereas livestock must be fed huge amounts of traditional crops.

Tuomisto said the technology could potentially increase the world's meat supply and help fight global hunger, but that would depend on how many factories there are producing the lab-made meat.

Post and colleagues haven't worked out how much the meat would cost to produce commercially, but because there would be much less land, water and energy required, he guessed that once production reached an industrial level, the cost would be equivalent to or lower than that of conventionally produced meat.

One of the biggest obstacles will be scaling up laboratory meat production to satisfy skyrocketing global demand. By 2050, the Food and Agriculture Organization predicts meat consumption will double from current levels as growing middle classes in developing nations eat more meat.

"To produce meat at an industrial scale, we will need very large bioreactors, like those used to make vaccines or pasteurized milk," said Matheny. He thought lab-produced meat might be on the market within the next few years, while Post said it could take about a decade.

For the moment, the only types of meat they are proposing to make this way are processed meats like minced , hamburgers or hot dogs.

"As long as it's cheap enough and has been proven to be scientifically valid, I can't see any reason people wouldn't eat it," said Stig Omholt, a genetics expert at the University of Life Sciences in Norway. "If you look at the sausages and other things people are willing to eat these days, this should not be a big problem."

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User comments : 10

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ealex
not rated yet Jan 15, 2010
Good job!

This will be as important as renewable energy, and sadly it will present the same challenges in getting people to use it (eat it).

Where do I sign up to taste?
jj2009
not rated yet Jan 15, 2010
doesn't it say something that they have been working on this since 2006 and none of them have dared actually eat it yet.
RJ32
Jan 15, 2010
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
Willie
not rated yet Jan 15, 2010
Wonderful Concept!

Just imagine what this would do in an event of a national disaster, if they can genetically make it last for a week or two. I know there's a chance of it doing harm of course, but if a person is starving to death; I'm sure they would take the chance. I have been to countries where people are starving, and they will eat rotten flesh from dead animals. I say to you scientists keep up the research, no one should have to starve in this world.
otto1923
3 / 5 (2) Jan 15, 2010
help alleviate world hunger
not until the growth rate of obsolete cultures is brought under control (by ending those cultures). Otherwise- more food only means LOTS more people, with the same % living in poverty.
and save some pigs their bacon
What good are pigs if you're not going to eat them? Truffle hunting? They smell. They eat a lot. They don't make good sled dogs. They'll probably die out without our need for hamhocks, and good riddance. Boars are the only legitimate swine.
otto1923
5 / 5 (1) Jan 15, 2010
What good are pigs
Oh yeah I forgot- research.
PinkElephant
not rated yet Jan 15, 2010
What good are pigs
Oh yeah I forgot- research.


Human organ replacement? Transgenic pigs with human-compatible livers, kidneys, intestines, skin, etc...

They don't make good sled dogs.


Some people still keep them as pets (they're smarter than dogs.) Though I suspect they aren't the same breed as used by meat farmers.
otto1923
not rated yet Jan 15, 2010
They got those pigmy puppy-sized porkers, and the glow-in-the-dark pigs which I thought would sell real well. Maybe multi-colored... Mood pigs. You could tell they were angry at you when they glowed red. Or when the inlaws were visiting. Maybe tuskers as guard pigs (they would blink on and off)
mayan
1 / 5 (1) Jan 15, 2010
get me one to feed it into aqua farms for prawn feed (I have to patent this for aqua feed. Hope the Dutch scientists give me their patent to my patent). Its more useful if they make costly meat like shark fin, tuna or turkey, but hybrid or lab grown ones vary in taste than natural ones, more suitable for aqua farm feed than as an appetite, I know one guru who gets his food not by genetic growth from thin air by tantra(forbidden science)
OZGuy
not rated yet Jan 16, 2010
If they focus on beef and have the likes of McDonalds invest all they have to produce is 'meat' that can be used to create hamburger patties. The beef consumption via fast-food outlets is enormous. Replace that natural beef consumption with laboratory grown 'beef' and you will reduce environmental damage from cattle production.
fixer
not rated yet Jan 18, 2010
Certainly it will cut down on methane if they produce cow free beef, but what will farmers do with their land? Build flats on it?
Not all land is suitable for crops, and grazing animals consume acres of grass and help reduce the fire danger.
Hillsides without animals? cheap real estate.