In vitro meat

We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium” -Winston Churchill in 1931

vitro meat

Meat has always been an important source of valuable nutrients in the human diet. We all depend on meat for our protein requirement. Proteins are required to build one’s body as they are a major component of human body tissues which are required for movement.

But as the population rises, the need of food and hence meat increases. The need of alternative meat production is really important to overcome hunger. A study conducted by the “Food and Agriculture Organization of United Nations” in 2006 calculated that approximately 70% of land is dedicated to livestock to fulfill the food requirement of 7billion people. And by 2050 the demand of meat will be increased by two-thirds. As the population and the demand of food increases, the traditional methods of obtaining food become less reliable.

Obtaining meat from the natural sources i.e cows, requires a lot of human effort and input; both in terms of natural sources and money. For example, producing 1kg of meat requires 15,000 liters of water. This stimulated the scientists to produce a cheap meat requiring less effort and giving more results.

Keeping in mind the above mentioned problems, Dr. Mark Post along with other lab technicians started the “IN VITRO MEAT” project at The University of Maastricht in October 2011. The main aim of the project was to create an edible meat containing all the essential nutrients, that does not need the slaughtering of any animal and that could abolish hunger.

In meat also known as Test tube meat or Cultured meat is a special kind of meat grown in laboratory and its production requires the modern methods of biotechnology. A common man on hearing this may ask “What do you mean by In Vitro?”. So in vitro means in glass i.e in an artificial medium for example a test tube.

The quest for the production of in meat started in 1911 when Russel Ross cultivated the muscle fibers in artificial media. These cells were grown for up to 8 weeks in the test tube and surprisingly these cells maintained the characters of muscle. NASA has been conducting experiments to culture turkey cells in an artificial media since 2001. While the quest for the production of edible meat in lab were own their way, scientists from Netherlands in 2009 announced that they had grown meat in lab by utilizing the cells from a live pig. Since then, 30 laboratories from around the world are busy for the successful production of edible cultured meat.

And then came the day; after years of experiment, the first lab grown cultured meat was cooked and eaten in London on August 5, 2013. It was grown by a group of scientists in Netherlands led by Dr. Mark Post. It was first of all tasted by Hanni Rutzler who stated that:

“There is really a bite to eat it, there is quite some flavor with browning; its close to meat; its not that juicy but the consistency is perfect”

The demonstration stimulated many other companies to take the project seriously and in February 2016, a company named Memphis Meats launched a video which showcased its cultured meatball.

The main method used in the production of in meat is cell culturing.  Cell culturing is a process which involves the isolation of cells from a living organism and then these cells are grown on an artificial medium i.e outside the living organism. As the cells require nutrients to grow properly so they are provided with all these nutrients including proteins, carbohydrates, minerals and oxygen. The cells in the test tube utilize these nutrients and begin to grow same as they grow inside the living organisms. The chemistry of the medium is highly regulated from time to time as a minute change in the medium will result in the death of the cells. The cells utilize all the components in the medium and begin to divide. As a result of this division they produce a mass of cells. This mass of cells is then stimulated to differentiate means that specific cells are assigned specific functions for their lifetime. After differentiation, they grow into specific tissues.

But in order to produce a three-dimensional meat it is important to use a scaffold. A scaffold is any structure that binds to gather the individual fibers of a muscle. To make edible meat, it is required that the scaffold must also be edible so that it does not require to be isolated from the muscle before eating or cooking. For this purpose a scaffold made from collagen can be used. Collagen is an animal protein that binds the joints in the body and it can also be obtained from non-animal sources.

But there are many challenges that the scientists are still facing. First comes that cultured meat must contain large and small fibers of muscle rather than a block of muscle. Moreover fat cells must be added to enhance its flavor. Cultured meat requires preservative such as sodium benzoate to protect it from microbial attack. And last but not the least, the growing of meat in an artificial media requires carefully controlled supply of nutrients especially oxygen. The solution of these problems are still on their way.

Due to the technical challenges faced, cultured meat had not yet been commercialized. Hampton Creek (a food company) says that it is working on the cultured meat and is planning to sell its meat to stores by 2018. While giving interview to ABC News Dr. Mark Post said “I do think that from 20-30 years from now, we will have a viable industry producing alternative beef”

Summing up, as Rome was not build in a day, production of cultured meat on industrial scale and its commercialization is also a big issue that will consume time. But let’s hope for the best.

Razmia Sabahat Butt

I'm a student of BS Applied Biosciences at NUST, Islamabad.

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