The Thursday Blog: Grannie, What Big Test Tubes You Have Edition

The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization produced a report recently called Livestock’s Long Shadow – Environmental Issues and Options that discussed the current state of meat production in the world and the most likely path that production will take in the next forty years. Currently around 26% of the Earth’s total land surface is occupied by grazing livestock, and 33% of all cropland is dedicated to producing feed crops for the rest of them. (Most in third-world countries where over-farming is contributing to the desertification of previously arable land.) Livestock production contributes a total of about 18% of the planet’s harmful greenhouse emissions, (climate change stuff) and the increased industrialization of livestock production has cause a surge of threatening infectious diseases (both animal and human) the world over.

Currently, these numbers are set to double by 2050… a year I was planning on being around to see.

A confederation of scientists have banded together to see if they can create a solution before the problem causes a major catastrophe. (Radical, eh?) Calling themselves the “In Vitro Meat Consortium”, these dedicated problem solvers have divided up the test-tube-meat pie and are attempting to overwhelm the science by attacking it from as many different angles at once as possible.

The basic premise to creating commercially viable “vat grown” meat is four-fold. The first thing is to find stem cells from the livestock animals you want to replace that you can reproduce at a high enough rate that won’t differentiate themselves into a fetal animal. Step two is to induce the differentiation you want into the stem cells, in this case into muscle cells, that contain at least all the same nutritional elements found in the actual animal. Third is the introduction of a “growth medium” (to make the actual cells bigger) that contains no contaminating animal products. Finally is a way to promote growth into three-dimension muscle structures.

Totally easy, right?

The head of the overall project is Mark Post, a professor of physiology at Maastrict University in the Netherlands. He projects the first burger within twelve months. Projecting forward, Utrect University researchers have calculated that just ten stem cells could produce 50,000 tons of meat with two months’ span, and a study from Oxford University concluded that meat created by this process could consume as much as 60% less total energy, 98% less land, and produce up to 95% less greenhouse gasses.

How much would you pay now? But wait. There’s more.

A Dr. Paolo Macchiarini, professor of surgery at the University of Barcelona in Spain has recently transplanted his second artificial trachea created with a very similar technology in cancer sufferers. Stem cells harvested from the patients themselves were grown into tracheal surface tissue and used to coat donor tracheas, which were transplanted without immuno-suppressors and also without rejection. While the technique is still in it’s infancy, the day is within reach when any body part will be able to be regrown and replaced… or even kept from breaking down at all.

I know many folks will decry all of this as Frankenscience or tampering with things man was not meant to know, but I think that’s a load of crap. We have problems, and just as humans have always done, we shall strive to correct them. For my part I am simply glad that the news seems good for once.

100 Responses to The Thursday Blog: Grannie, What Big Test Tubes You Have Edition

  1. All new technologies end up coming with positives and negatives, as usual we probably won’t know what the negatives are until we can’t do without the positives. That said, I eagerly await excellent-approximation cow-meat that no longer comes with mad cow risk.

    • I’m n0t sure this would eliminate “mad cow”; the last I saw the disease was attributed to “prions”, these could be generated by [pompous mode] “minor quality control issues” [/pompous mode]. Perhaps Christina is more fully informed (and more current).

      • I’m thinking that quality control issues may be somewhat easier to navigate in a computerized industrial production lab than in the “sewage lagoons” of current high-production livestock farms.

        • What Kevin said, but mostly the prions are deformed versions of proteins that line nerve cells. If we’re doing really well we may be able to generate muscle without wasting effort on nerve cells and then there wouldn’t be any reasonable mad cow risk.

      • There’s been no reported cases of that disease crossing species barriers, by the way. I suppose it may be POSSIBLE, but it’s so exceedingly rare that science has not caught it doing so yet.

        • It was the cause of the mass herd destruction in UK years ago, and is responsible for variant CJD–a neurological wasting disease–in people who aren’t born immune.

          • Mad cow disease killing cows is not, you know, crossing species barriers.

            I haven’t heard about the variant CJD, though, so I suppose I should shut up until I do a bit more research.

  2. My husband glanced over my shoulder at this as I was reading. His comment is, “Intellectually, it’s a great idea with a lot of merit, but my hind-brain can’t get past the squick factor of test-tube steak.”
    Myself, I’m looking forward to having a local lab that can grow anything I need, be it burger, new trachea, or teeth.

    • I’m with you. As far as the squick-factor, that only lasts one generation. In medieval England, the peasants were often more healthy than the nobility because their diet was so much better. (Being that all they could afford were “common” foods that were good for you.) I think once the tech is refined, it would be easy to make in-vitroburger much healthier than regular animal-sourced meat. If that happens, and “peasants” once again are eating healthier than the “nobility”, expect any remaining resistance to wash away.

      • I doubt the commoners ate healthier. I think a lot of modern preoccupation with raw vegetables and fruit is a fad. That’s not to say it can’t be good for you, but… don’t get me started on fanatic vegans.

        Until tooth-destroying sugar became widely available in Europe, which was during the time of colonial empires centuries later, the only difference was that the nobility could afford to eat more meat… which might lead to gout, but overall, fish and meat and eggs provide important protein. Due to better nutrition, nobles were taller. Nobles could afford bread made from white wheat flour (provided the local climate allowed wheat to grow). The standard daily food however was gruel or porridge made from oats and barley, or bread baked from rye, barley, and emmer.

        All flour was intermixed with stone powder (or even tiny splinters), which was grit abraded from the millstones. The softer the stone used for the millstone was, the more grit you’d have. A good millstone was smooth and made from hard stone. This stone powder first abraded the dental enamel and then the teeth itself, to such an extent that the teeth grew shorter throughout life. Paleontologists use the length of the teeth in medieval skeletons to estimate the age of the person.

        Vegetables, roots and other plants (“herbs”) and mushrooms were rarely eaten “fresh”. In a commoner’s hut, everything was cooked in one big iron pot and left to stew over the fire, often for days…. or weeks, as the pot was seldom emptied completely, instead new foodstuffs were simply added into the slowly boiling mix. The end result was a mush called “pottage”. Other food was preserved by adding salt, drying it, or (later) cooking it with sugar. Fresh fruit, such as fresh apples, grapes, and berries, were only seasonally available.

        Fortunately, there were other sources of vitamins available, such as pine bark (the Vikings ground pine bark and added it to flour to stretch it), fermented cabbage (sauerkraut), or even bird eggs, fish, seal and whale (lab tests of traditional Inuit food found the biggest source of arctic vitamin C comes from raw skin of the beluga whale and the raw liver of the ringed seal). Sorrel also contains a lot of vitamin C, but it was usually used as seasoning, not eaten raw.

        In places like Japan, where food is often eaten raw, this was due to a shortage of cooking fuel, not because of worries about vitamins. Living on islands with limited resources, wood was valuable, peat was not available, there was no widespread access to active volcanic heat (like on the Canary islands, where traditional cooking uses geothermic energy by roasting food over a volcanic crack or lowering bundles of food into the crack until they’re done). But the Japanese paid for the eating of raw fish by infections with fish parasites.

        How eating raw, contaminated salads can kill you has recently been demonstrated during the EHEC epidemic in Germany. Add to that that in medieval times, unless you had a freshwater well nearby, the water to wash vegetables might be contaminated by bacteria, too, or worse even contain parasite larvae.

        People who ate rye also faced another unpleasantness: ergot poisoning. If the weather had been wet, rye in Europe was often infected with spores of the fungus Claviceps purpurea. There are other Claviceps species which infect other grasses and cereals in the tropical regions, but let’s stay with the medieval European peasant. The fungus grows most commonly on rye, but can infect wheat, barley, too, it rarely infects oats. It produces alkaloids that can cause ergotism in humans and other mammals who consume grains contaminated with its fruiting structure (called a sclerotium), which looks like a black “splinter” that grows out of the ear of grain. What happens is this: if the pollen-sized fungus spore infects a flowering grass (i.e. rye), the growing mycelium destroys the developing grain and takes its place. Well, actually it’s a bit more complicated, for the details and some nice pictures look here:

        Today, rye is screened for ergot sclerotiums. Ergotism produced by ingesting the fungus alkaloids is not neccessarily deadly, but the poisoning produces symptoms such as horrible burning pain in the limbs, convulsions, seizures, hallucinations, and gangrene of the limbs. Back in classical and medieval times, smart people may have looked for those sclerotiums and gathered them, because in small doses the poison had medicinal value, e.g. it can be used to induce abortion, or to stop bleeding, or to treat migraine. (Although given that it is difficult to get the dose right and that medieval medicine, as evidenced by the herbals of the nun Hildegard von Bingen, already knew a metric ton of plants and drugs to induce abortion, it was probably not widely used.)

        In Roman times, the Mithras cult may have used ergot extracts to induce psychedelic hallucinations in religious context. The ergot sclerotium contains a high concentration (2% of its dry mass) of the alkaloid ergotamine, and small amounts of natural lysergic acid. The ergotamine can be used to synthesize lysergic acid, which is an analog and precursor to lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). In fact, the first LSD created as part of pharmaceutical research by Albert Hofmann in 1938 was synthesized from ergotamine extracted from ergot, and in 1943 Hofmann was the first modern person to experience an LSD high. He went on to study other hallucinogenics, such as psilocybin. For science!

        • As I mention below, saying any particular thing is true for “the medieval European peasant” is sort of akin to saying “all dogs are brown”, or “all people are tall”. The things you say are true for some peasants, but hardly all. Many peasants lived brutal, hardship-filled, and extremely short lives. They were abused, starved, and poisoned by their environment. But many peasants also ran their own affairs, provided their own governance and legal enforcement, were highly literate, and ate a diet that far healthier than their lords. They even had medical care that while hardly the equivalent of today’s, was the equal of any lord’s and easier to obtain than medical care in the US now. The post-plague peasants had it particularly well, and basically ran the countryside. Workers were at a premium, and they knew it. After the Norman invasion everything fell apart and peasants were eventually replaced with the easier to care for and more profitable sheep, but before that things were actually pretty good for peasants in England.

        • There was an outbreak cited for 1951 (Pont-Saint-Esprit, France); although Wiki notes it as probably a misidentified incidence of mercury poisoning.

      • Do you have any sources on that? Everything I’ve ever heard implies the direct opposite, with a few exceptions. The nobility’s bread was less healthy than the peasant’s, but then, they had a LOT more than highly refined bread to eat.

        • Yeah, actually. I’m currently reading Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives in which he interviews a variety of archeologists studying the medieval European peasant. The things they have been finding (have found) fly in the face of what everyone has thought about peasants for ages.

          Of course it is probably responsible to point out that almost every facet of peasant life changed by both location and time period. It is hard to say that any part of it was ubiquitously true, but at the very least, pre-Norman English peasants had — on average — a freer and healthier life than the average American today.

    • I’m sceptical… not because of fear of “Frankenfood”, but because flesh tissue is made up of a lot more than just random muscle cells. If we manage to grow donor organs, proper skin, or even whole limbs in the lab one day, I will be ecstatic. But I doubt we will get rid of domestic animals any time soon.

      Attempts to create lab-grown meat have been done in the past but so far always failed. The idea isn’t new. The sciefi novel “The Space Merchants”, written by Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth in 1952, describes an overpopulated Earth, where the masses eat vat-grown chicken meat, carved out of perpetually-growing, giant masses of tissue, called “Chicken-Little”.

      It’s quite easy to grow skin cells into a one-cell thick layer, or to entice cells to migrate into a pre-build matrix to mimic a three dimensional structure, but so far all attempts to “build” an organ have failed. And meat (which is usually striated skeletal muscle, or cardiac muscle if you eat the heart) is made up of more than just muscle cells. It contains nerves, blood vessels, fat tissue, it has a structure, it is influenced by enzymes and hormones produced by the body. Various genetic programs are activated and deactivated during the lifetime of an animal, that control how the body shapes itself, how cells divide and differenciate into tissues and organs. The cells itself communicate with each other chemically across the intercellular gaps.

      Just plonking a couple myoblasts (muscle progenitor cells) into nutritional fluid and letting them proliferate like a tumor is not the answer. No, screw that, even a cancer tumor contains blood vessels, to feed and oxygenize the whole thing. Even if you manage to create a lumb of tissue, it has no structure.

      Skeletal muscles are composed of parallel bundles of tubular muscle cells called myocytes or myofibers; within the muscle cells are tubular myofibrils composed of repeating sections of sarcomeres, which appear under the microscope as dark and light bands (striations). Individual muscle fibers are sheathed in connective tissue, these are grouped into bundles (again surrounded by connective tissue), and these are grouped together to form distinct muscles. There are different types of skeletal muscles, which differ on how fast they can contract, but…anyway.

      So if you grow muscle cells without connective tissue, you might use it for spam, but you won’t get a proper steak. Absense of blood vessels would severely limit the size of the lump of cells, restricting you to two layers so that the cells can take up nutrients and oxygen directly from the surrounding fluid. You would probably end up with Type IIb muscle, a pale muscle that has few mitochondria and myoglobin and which takes its metabolic energy from an anaerobic, glycolytic pathway; such muscle is able to contract very quickly but not able to sustain this long. You won’t get a facsimile of a high-quality beef steak which is made from type I muscle, as this need red meat rich in myoglobin.

      So you have a mushy structure and a lack of colour, which is practically a given. As for the taste of muscle meat grown outside a body… I seriously have no idea. But
      a) hormones have a massive influence on the taste of meat and its water content, which is why male pigs are usually castrated soon after birth,
      b) much of the taste of meat comes from the fat content, which is why “modern” breeding for animal with less body fat percentage and the modern preoccupation with “low-fat” meat makes meat drier, increases water content, and negatively influences taste,
      c) and last but not least the taste of meat is also influenced by the animal’s diet.

      If “In Vitro Meat Consortium” overcome all those hurdles, hey, more power to them. But right now I seriously doubt it.

      • Also our meat (on our bones) probably needs some of the compounds not found in straight lab-pure muscle cells. Although perhaps most could be gained from a vegetarian diet – but if we can grow meat proteins, why not cut out the whole land-use/logistics problems and grow vege cubes. But my point is, if we could live on just muscle cells, we could live on the nutrient shakes they’re grown in. But we can’t, its more complex than that.

      • There are a lot of smarty-pants people involved with this. I couldn’t say if they were as smart as you, but there are a lot of high-power brains and research facilities being devoted to finding a lucrative answer to this problem. Hormones could be introduced in vitro, and a percentage of cells could be differentiated as fat cells during that part of the process. An animal’s diet translates to the meat as a simple chemical brew, which also can be introduced in vitro.

        All that said the scientists have already admitted that their product will not be steak. It won’t even be hamburger. It will be an efficient, inexpensive animal-meat substitute. They are planning on resistance. They are also planning on subsequent generations growing up used to it. My guess is that they never had in mind people like you or me ever becoming accustomed to their product, (I don’t eat red meat anyway) and their strategy takes that into account.

  3. I would gladly use a new organ grown from my own tissues, if I needed it, but I’d turn my nose up at the hamburger.

  4. Screw the test tube meat!

    I got my copy of White Smoke Mountain in the mail today! 😀

    *does a happy dance*

  5. New life insurance medical is introduced:
    Along with a life policy to benefit your family when you die you also have the option of three organ choices to be grown and placed on standby in case of an emergency before your natural death. Common organs include heart, liver, and kidney. Although the brain can be grown, electron stimuli pathing is still being developed and so we cannot provide this service, yet.
    A supplemental policy is also avaiable to use extra resources to grow your own food meat. Fun labels are also provided so you can show off your Kevin Steak or Lena Pattise.

    In all honesty though this is good news. All meat is is muscle fibers having chemical and biological properties. We no longer Hunt as a whole so who cares where the food comes from as long as it is healthy, tasty, and looks and smells like food we know. Except poo burgers… this one I won’t eat.

    • First test objects for a brain swap of course are lawyers and politicians. Although nobody would notice a difference if the replacement isn’t fully functional… :evil

    • The study pointed out that the vast majority of people are already pretty well removed from the sources of their food, and conjectured that it probably wouldn’t take too long to bring most folks around. Especially when in vitro is literally meat sourced from a cow, the same tissues that you’d be eating anyway, just created at a much lower cost to humanity.

      Totally with you on the poo-burger. While I might intellectually know that it’s “safe”, it’s harder to make my mouth take that leap.

      • poo burgers too close to getting human tissue/proteins which have been removed back into the body (eg mad cow, or plasmids)

        meat growth, good for low cost protein. but why do we need more humans when the social & economic systems are still so archaic?

        grow parts. why not? its just medicine but it’ll a while before the bugs get worked out, and a long time in current social and economic ways before Big Pharma let it get to the general population. (ie the people least qualified for immortality will buy it first)

      • The killing is the best part of the meat. 🙁

        OMG, what would PETA and all those snooty vegetarians do when meat’s no longer “murder”?

  6. Yes, I’ve been following the vat-grown (I know it’s not really grown in a vat) meat tech a bit. I think it’s great—most of the animal protein I eat is things like sandwich meat or stir fry, and they started with making vat-grown chicken. I’d much rather use meat grown without the fat and bone for that sort of stuff.

    And the ability to mass produce meat without factory farms (CAFOs) is a win on so many levels that if I were running Tyson or Smithfield I’d be heavily investing in this tech.

  7. This is exactly the kind of thing any Republican worth his salt would instinctively try to ban.

    Every problem in the world can be cured by drilling for more oil.

      • Unfortunately, the political reality is also a joke.
        If someone had invested enough billions on full industrialization of solar power collection they could have turned the Nevada desert into a giant solar collector in the 70s or 80s. Enough shoestring-budget researchers have been working on the problem of solar collection that it is finally becoming cheaper than nuclear power now but it could have been long ago if the USDoD decided that it made strategic sense to do it and spent some of their DARPA budget on it. Instead, America has stupendously expensive military aircraft and an explosive for every target. Why? Boeing needs defense contract money.
        This technology has the potential to render most of the ranching industry obsolete; this industry’s owners regularly spend a lot of money on lawyers and lobbyists so that it doesn’t have to answer for health and pollution issues from intensive farming. How cheap would it be to kill a competitor-industry that isn’t even born yet I wonder? Probably very cheap if they can bribe or stir up enough religious fundies to claim the technology is a wicked and evil stem-cell abomination created by immoral scientists playing at God.

        • Maybe, but this research isn’t based in the US. It’s being farmed out all over the planet. And the fact is, some country somewhere (likely some country that doesn’t have a big livestock production) is going to be willing to play host. It may take an extra decade or two to filter into the US, but as soon as someone figures out a way to make some bucks on it, it’ll crash down the barriers.

          Of course the smart money would be for today’s beef industrials to invest heavily into this, so that when it happens, they can be the guys in charge, and set the prices for it. We’ll see how that pans out.

          • That would be like the big music distributors spending the effort and money to make the mother of all download sites where anything you want can be had for a penny an album. Is this eventually going to replace the recording industry as it is, turning live performances and brand-merchandising back into the major source of revenue in music business? Yes, of course it is. Doesn’t stop them from fighting tooth and nail for their ten dollars profit or more per physical CD/DVD.
            Similarly, when you’re the big game in town and a new technology threatens to replace you for a penny on the dollar… you fight high, low, direct and indirect to keep them from ruining your meal ticket.
            See my earlier point about the power industry not investing in making solar power that’s too cheap to meter and mostly in the control of the local property owners instead of the large companies. No greedy special interest chases after reduced profits until they have exhausted all hope of retaining greater profits.

  8. I’m a big fan of the Dune series, and this sounds an awful lot like the beginnings of how the Tlilaxians got thier start. First they bio-engineer food, and then move on to animals, and then organ farms, and finally specifically engineered humans. “Vat-grown” makes me think of Axlotyl tanks, but I’m sure it would be a lot more test-tubey with our scientists. Anyway, I think I’d prefer to eat something grown in an axlotyl tank over one of those “turd burgers”. I think I’d be wondering “whose poop am I eating now?” and it would rather spoil my appetite.

    • I can think of more than 14 different species of ONE type of animal we eat…whoever wrote that was incorrect.

      Just Seafood alone, There are a half dozen species of crabs, a couple types of Lobsters, 4 or so species of shrimp, not to mention Tuna, Haddok, Cod, Halibut, Salmon, Trout, Bass, etc…

      • Maybe they counted “fish” as one species… although that would be grossly incorrect. I probably eat more than 14 different species of animal in a single month, and I don’t eat red meat.

        • I’m sure they counted Chickens and Turkeys as one species too, and probably ignored Moose, Deer, Rabbit, etc…

      • I’m guessing the comment was meant to be understood as “farm raised food animals”. Even so, the statement was probably restricted to North America and possibly Europe.

  9. I’m wondering what happens to all those animals we no longer need? What happens to things like milk, eggs and cheese if we can synthesize those products? What happens to other foods we eat that are dependent on things like milk & eggs as part of their recipe?

    Maybe I’m looking too hard to find the fly in the ointment. I’ve just always been taught that if it sounds too good to be true, it usually is.

    • That’s a good point. Milk, cheese, eggs… not to mention leather, traditional catgut (made from sheep guts), silk, spider silk… more reasons why we won’t drop animal husbandry any time soon.

      We did phase out a lot of animals that used to be on the menue once upon a time, like swans, beavers, squirrels, sea cows. Animals also provided us with things like oils and fats –both for industrial uses, and medicinal use (cod liver oil)– and bone to make tools and jewelry out of. The industrial revolution would not have happened without full-scale whale hunting. This only stopped when we either found a cheap substitute (like substituting mineral crude oil for organic whale oil) or had hunted the animals to near or total extinction… such as the Steller’s Sea Cow, first discovered by Europeans in 1741 and wiped out 27 years later by fur traders, sailors and seal hunters going past the Commander Islands. Those men found that the giant, slow-moving, slow-reproducing sea cow was completely tame, easy to kill, its meat was tasty, it’s subcutaneous fat could be eaten like butter or used as an excellent, clean-burning oil in lamps, its thick skin could be used to make boats out of, and if you speared one animal and it sank you could easily kill another, so why bother holding back? But to spread the blame where it belongs, the Steller’s Sea Cow was already in decline by 1741 and dying out, presumably from overhunting and interference with its habitat by native aboriginal hunters, because according to the fossil record it had once been widespread all over the North Pacific coasts from Alaska to California and Japan. It had only survived near hard to reach, uninhabited islands.

      • If someone managea to find some Steller’s Sea Cow frozen in ice somewhere and manages to clone it and bring the species back into the wild, and then decides to also breed some in captivity to sell sea cow burgers, hey, be my guest.

      • Unpleasant historical fact:
        You are a whaler.
        How do you cook oil from whale blubber when the antarctic landscape you are in lacks trees for wood?
        You take live penguins and throw them into the roaring fire. They contain lots of fat. They burn well.

    • If humanity no longer needed cows, there would no longer be cows. They were an artificial species anyway. The planet would not miss them.

      However, as Christina mentioned, there are plenty of other industries that require cattle products. They just don’t need as many cows.

  10. I seem to remember Neal Stephenson had “Chicken Little”, a huge cancer that tasted like chicken, but I guess we’re a little too nervous about cancer these days to do that. To me the best thing about vat meat is the cruelty free angle. We’re generating bigtime bad mojo with our meat practices right now. Dammit now I want bacon. Fun fact: if a domestic pig goes feral it begins growing super thick fur and giant tusks within three weeks.

    • Apparently a fair bit of cancer is caused by parasites; bacteria, virii and certain worm parasites are definitely linked. Others are pretty strongly linked to toxins like most metals, radon and such. Really, I suspect there are more infectious and toxic causes and links for cancer than we currently know about; a number of tumors are themselves toxic to normal tissue.
      I wouldn’t willingly touch a tumor, let alone eat one.

      • As long as the cells are all dead due to cooking, eating a tumor would be safe…it’s Prions (Malformed proteins like the ones that cause BSE) that you really have to watch out for.

    • Chicken is the “default, no flavour” setting for your taste buds. Add that to “yum fat” sensors.

    • Is that real about the feral pigs? That seems implausible… though it would be fascinating if true.

      Okay, I looked it up… and it’s true! Although it apparently takes 3 or 4 months to happen, “domesticated” pigs in the wild will grow tusks, coarse fur, and become extremely aggressive. How weird is that?