If the juicy rib-eye steak on your dinner plate came from a lab instead of a cow, would you eat it?
OK, so beef cultured from a handful of tissue cells doesn't sound appetizing. But the results could be surprisingly tasty and even healthier than the animal-grown variety, according to researchers working on two new techniques for producing mass quantities of meat for human consumption in a lab.
Although no one has put their theory into production yet, scientists at the University of Maryland and other institutions who developed it insist that with today's technology, creating meat in a laboratory-factory is not a far-fetched notion.
"In theory, a few cells [can] produce literally tons of meat," said Jason Matheny, a graduate student in agriculture at College Park and a co-author of a paper on the subject published this summer in the journal Tissue Engineering.
The researchers argue that lab-grown meat could help reduce pollution from cattle operations, reduce the amount of greenhouse gases animals produce, lower the risk for disease outbreaks and even reduce the threat of bioterrorism.
Skeptics abound, however. Some have doubts about the taste of lab-grown meat, and some question its potential safety for human consumption.
Some critics of the American diet argue that people should be eliminating meat instead of making more of it. Still others think the whole proposal sounds too much like something from an episode of The Jetsons.
"It's silly to even conjecture - it's so far into the future, " said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which advocates less beef consumption.
But advocates think it's a lot closer than that. Here's how they say it would work:
First, a sample of skeletal muscle tissue is removed from an animal in a biopsy. From the skeletal muscle sample, scientists would isolate satellite cells or myoblasts - the precursors to muscle cells.
Those cells would multiply rapidly in a culture of growth elements, including carbohydrates and amino acids. Through an assortment of environmental cues, the cells would fuse to become muscle fibers, the building blocks of muscle tissues in animals.
The researchers propose growing the meat in sheetlike layers, which could be stacked on one another. Another option is growing them on organic "beads" to produce thicker material.
The initial product would be similar to processed meats such as sausage, hamburger and chicken nuggets. But the ultimate look and feel of the meat would depend on what engineers can do to add connective tissues and blood vessels to produce even more complex meats - something resembling steak, according to Doug McFarland, professor of animal science at South Dakota State University and a co-author of the report.
MacFarland said he doesn't know exactly how much culture media it would take to produce a ton of meat, or whether full-scale production would require inordinate resources. "There's a lot of technical problems that would need to be overcome before we can do this," he said.
The scientists are reasonably certain they can ultimately limit the amount of unhealthy fat in meat while preserving the taste people enjoy. "We want to create something better than natural meat," said another co-author, Vladimir Mironov, a cell biologist and anatomy professor at the Medical University for South Carolina.
A safer alternative
Far from being "franken food," the tissue researchers say, lab-grown meat could actually be safer and more "natural" than beef on the shelves today.
"People looking for a natural food are not going to find it in animal meats," Matheny said. "There's nothing natural about eating cattle fed on growth promoters and antibiotics. This would be the purest meat ever produced."
He said the crowded conditions under which cattle and poultry are raised today encourage antibiotic-resistant bacteria. "They are natural incubators for new diseases, which with minor mutations can cross into humans," he said.
Proponents say lab-grown beef would help alleviate threats to the environment from current beef and poultry production methods. They range from creation of greenhouse gases to runoff from animal waste that threatens the Chesapeake and other bodies of water.
Instead of requiring vast acreage, the meat could be produced in sterile labs in New York or Los Angeles - a decidedly different type of farm. "The cowboy of the 21st century will be the guy who looks like an astronaut," Mironov said.
The scientists have backers in unusual quarters. "Progress in this area is welcome for anyone who has any compassion for animals at all," said Ingrid Newkirk, president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. "The list of good this will do is enormous."