Lab-grown meat to offer sustainable protein option

February 18, 2015

This month’s FutureFood 2050 series explores alternatives to standard meat proteins, such as lab-grown meat and protein from bugs, which may play an important role in global efforts to sustainably feed a growing population. FutureFood 2050 is an initiative supported by the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) that addresses how to feed the world’s expected population of 9+ billion by 2050.

One of this month’s articles highlights the work of Mark Post, physiologist professor at the Netherlands’ Maastricht University, who sees lab-grown products as the ultimate solution to feeding the world’s appetite for healthier, sustainable “real” meat. In the summer of 2013, Post served the first-ever in vitro burger during a media event. While the cultured beef patty was pronounced as a tad dry but not bad, its cost—at more than $330,000—made it evident that this was just a first step towards providing an affordable, sustainable meat option.

It took Post and his co-workers three months to grow the 85 grams of meat required for the patty. First, through biopsy, they obtained myosatellite cells—a type of stem cells responsible for muscle regeneration after injury—from a piece of Belgian beef. Then the cells were placed in a nutrient medium in petri dishes. For seven to eight weeks, the cells proliferated, growing and self-organizing into donut-shaped muscle fibers, each barely 1 mm in diameter. Next, the muscles matured and started producing abundant protein. Three weeks later they were ready for harvest.

Before cultured meat can become easily accessible, however, Post says several challenges will need to be overcome. For starters, he has to find a much cheaper growth medium, one that wouldn’t be made of fetal bovine serum (from unborn cows). He is also working on the fat tissue and the protein composition of cultured meat—myoglobin in particular, which is important for the iron content and the red color of beef. And last but not least, Post is trying to scale up production by developing special tanks for growing the cells.

Even with the challenges, Post believes that by 2050 cultured meat production will have already cut in half the amount of resources needed for producing beef. “It’s ambitious, but achievable,” he says. “After all, it [only] took us about three years to get the technology from zero to something that you can eat.”

FutureFood 2050 article