London 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 or even tasted the engineered meat, they say the technology promises to have widespread implications for our food supply.
“If we took the stem cells from one pig and multiplied it by a factor of a million, we would need 1 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.
Post describes the texture of the meat as sort of like scallop, firm but a little squishy and moist. That’s because the lab meat has less protein content than conventional meat.
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’ muscle cells. 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 long; to make a small pork chop, Post estimates it would take about 30 days of cell replication 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.
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. 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.