Back in 2013, 'test-tube' hamburgers hit headlines across the Internet, and not just because scientists had managed to more-or-less replicate meat in the lab. It was a commendable feat, especially because it offered a potential solution to the increasingly unsustainable practice of cattle farming, but then we heard about the price tag. Who's up for a $325K burger made from cultured muscle tissue cells? Anyone? Last chance? You sure?
But just two years on, and scientists have announced a drastic cut in the cost of producing one of these patties, saying the price tag is now just a little more than $11 per burger, or $80 per kilogram of the meat. And the best part? The technique requires just a just a small piece of muscle to produce 10,000 kilos of lab meat.
"Cattle are very inefficient animals in converting vegetable proteins into animal proteins. We lose actually a lot of food by giving it to animals as an intermediate," one of the team, Mark Post from Maastricht University in the Netherlands, told Dominqiue Schwartz at ABC News. "At an environmental scale in methane and other greenhouse gases exhaust, it is also for the environment not a very healthy system. I do think that in 20, 30 years from now, we will have a viable industry producing alternative beef."
Post's technique makes use of myosatellite cells - stem cells that actively repair muscle tissue cells - that have been extracted from cows and cultured in a petri dish using a chemical known as 'foetal calf serum'. Ariel Schwartz describes the process over at FastCompany:
"The cells are placed onto gel in a plastic dish, where the calf serum's nutrients are reduced, triggering the cells to go into starvation mode and split into muscle cells. Those cells eventually merge into muscle fibres called myotubes and start synthesising protein. The end product is a tissue strip, described by the New York Times as 'something like a short, pink rice noodle'."
And, surprisingly, that short, pink rice noodle actually passed all the taste tests it was thrown into. Post and his team are now working on replacing the serum with something that doesn't rely on animal products, and told the ABC that while they're making great process, it'll be at least a couple of decades before they can scale the technique up and make it commercially viable.
Just as Rome wasn't built in a day, appetising lab-meat is a slow-burn kind of thing. But Post and his team are in it for the long haul, and anything's better than ignoring the ever-increasing issue of feeding the world's billions.
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