The road to lab-grown meat
The meat industry is one of the worst producers of greenhouse gases globally. And what feeds this industry is that the average westerner eats about their own body weight in meat every year; and although some people have cut their consumption, or gone vegetarian, to reduce their impact, most people remain staunch carnivores. So can science help? Georgia Mills heard from Mark Kotter from the Cambridge University spin out company Elpis Biomed; one of their technologies is lab-grown meat...
Mark - Essentially in my academic lab we generated a new approach of making very consistent batches of cells.
Georgia - And what has that got to do with the meat industry?
Mark - Well I didn't know until recently our view was to create cells that we can use to study human diseases. And one of the cells that we generated really as a proof of principle was a muscle cell. So some individuals who were interested in cultured meat thought this might be applicable to their problem, which is basically trying to create muscle and fat.
Georgia- Right, which is what you would find in your lovely burger?
Mark - That's correct.
Georgia - So you're taking the cow, well, not out of the equation, but the growing it chopping it up and eating it but you're sort of taking out the middleman and taking stem cells and hopefully turning that into a burger. So how would that work?
Mark - So basically we treat stem cells as the hardware. The analogy is really a computer. If you run a new program on a computer you get a new function. If you run a new program in a cell you can switch the identity of that cell into a new cell type. The little contribution that we made was to make this a very robust process. So we can turn all stem cells in the culture Into a muscle or a fat or a neuron. And what we did is we are using gene editing technology that CRISPRs to bury the program in the DNA of the cell and then once we want we can turn it on and the entire population of cells will switch to a new cell type.
Georgia - Do you think people will take this up as a new form of meat eating?
Mark - From my own experience, it was a very alien concept to me but to be honest it makes such a lot of sense. First there's the ethics we grow a cow and the cow really is a complex organism which behaves a little bit like us as well. And what do you do with the end is you chop it up and you just take the muscle. So I think that’s quite barbaric to be honest. The other thing is it has health implications. You can actually optimise the meat so that you can take up some of the fatty acids that might be damaging you and you can get rid of a lot of the antibiotics that are currently used for farming. And the third factor, of course, are the environmental issues. It takes a lot of energy to raise a cow and then harvest it.
Chris - Will it scale, Mark? Can you grow enough cells to feed seven point five billion people and possibly 10 billion by 2050? Sounds like a tall order...
Mark - You definitely are right. The scale up will be the biggest challenge there but if you think about the base population that we use which are the stemcells they really grow incredibly fast. And so if you put them into the right context the models that I've seen suggest that you could do that in effect for example if you wanted to go to Mars it’s the only option to have some meat...
Chris - ...unless you resort to cannibalism of course!
Georgia - Speaking of which, would it work for any animal?
Mark - In theory yes. I mean if you know the transcription that program that controls a Musselburgh effect in that species it should be perfectly achievable.
Georgia - When do you think we might see this in the shops. Could you put a good guess on how long it might take?
Mark - I don't know. I think their ambition is to create the first burgers within three four years and of course then the real challenges of scale will kick in.