If you're concerned about the ethics of livestock production but don't want to become a vegetarian, consider this: It may be possible to grow meat in a petri dish.
Dr. Mark Post, professor of vascular physiology at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands, is working on creating meat from bovine stem cells. And he's planning to unveil a burger created this way in October, he said Sunday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Vancouver.
Croplands and pastures occupy about 35% of the planet's ice-free land surface, according to a 2007 study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.
"Meat consumption is going to double in the next 40 years or so, so we need to come up with alternatives to solve the land issue," Post said.
Post's financial backer, whose identity Post would not disclose, is providing 250,000 euros (about $330,000) toward the development of this hamburger. And the financier has the right to choose who will be the lucky person to taste this futuristic burger, Post said.
The scientists say their creations are not quite at the level of hamburger, though - samples from cultures are currently about 3 centimeters (1.2 inches) long and weigh only half a gram. That's too small to cook. Post hasn't tasted it yet himself.
To get the samples bigger and more burger-looking, scientists may grow them on a spherical surface. Eventually they'd like to be able to create big slabs of meat, Post said.
The color is pinkish-yellowish, and Post and colleagues would like to make it look more appetizing in a natural way. Meat in typical hamburgers gets its color partly from blood. One way to make the stem-cell meat more authentic-looking is to use caffeine to coerce the cells to produce more myoglobin, a type of protein that carries iron and oxygen.
Apart from the "meat," scientists need to grow fat separately, for the juiciness and taste of the final product.
Right now the process doesn't involve harming animals - researchers are using leftover materials from slaughterhouses. But in the future, the process could use animals that would be killed so that all of their stem cells could be harvested, he said.
You could get about 1 million times as many burgers from a single cow using these stem cell methods as you would from traditional processes, Post said.
But obviously Post's process is expensive and requires a lot of effort.
So how long will it take until the process of making stem cell burgers becomes more efficient than regular burgers?
With the resources Post and colleagues have right now, it's never going to happen, he says. With unlimited resources, it would still take 10 to 20 years.
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