Animals / Human Biology / Science

Laboratory grown meat


Imagine tucking into a chicken burger at a dinner party hosted by your staunch vegetarian friend. It may have been next to impossible till now but could very soon be a reality. Wondering how? – The magic of science and its possibilities which could extend well beyond the clinic to agriculture and now could land on the table as well. Lab grown meat – the latest in the field on food biotechnology has the potential to revolutionise the industry. Any guesses how it would be made? Let us get into the basics of making such a product to cater to the taste buds of the meat lovers but would go easy on the hearts of those ethically inclined.

If you have not read the article on Stem Cells, this is the time do so to understand what comes next. Stem cells are cells which have not yet committed to becoming any specific type of cell in the body and hence retain the ability to make the decision of ‘what to become’ at any point of time based on the environmental cues that they get. As you all know, the consumable portion of the meat is a mix of muscle fibers with some fat tissue interspersed between them. What scientists have done is that they harnessed the power of these cells to become any kind of functional cell and replicated it in the laboratory to produce meat-like tissue. Once these cells are isolated and grown in a dish in the lab, one could mimic the environmental conditions that stimulate these cells to become muscle cells or organize themselves into myotubes. These can then be developed into thin strips of meat which could be used as food. Meat-eaters however tend to miss the actual taste of the fatty tissue interspersed with these muscle fibres. Advancement in tissue engineering techniques have come to the aid of the scientists and complex tissue resembling those harvested from animals for meat can be developed in the lab as well. The advantage is that one could develop a whole array of lean meat with varying percentages of cholesterol to suit one’s palate and health condition as well. This entire process of developing laboratory grown meat can be accentuated by the usage of an appropriate matrix called a scaffold which mimic the growth conditions in the body. These scaffolds can be made of material like collagen, alginate etc which can be shrunk or expanded resembling the dynamic growth conditions these cells are exposed to, in the body. These elastic scaffolds are seeded with the pluripotent or multipotent stem cells and incubated with growth factors and appropriate media which facilitate the differentiation of these into muscle and fat cells. A 3-dimensional growth matrix yields blobs of meat like tissue much advanced than the  unilayer of cells which can be grown on a cell culture dish.

Laboratory grown meat can bring down the costs of the labour intensive meat industry and also contribute to a reduction in the green house gas emissions, a bane of rearing cattle. Diseases of cattle which have the potential to be transmitted to humans would also be well controlled by this idea of meat production. Vaccines, antibiotics and other drugs administered to cattle while rearing them for meat would be significantly reduced as one uses meat cultured in the laboratory. One could also fortify the meat thus produced with the necessary nutrients thereby catering to the need of those requiring extra care in their diet. While the picture seems rosy enough, there remains a long way to go before you see a meat burger on your palate which does not carry along the ethical burden of animal slaughter. For instance culture of these cells require the usage of growth factors and other media supplements which are of animal origin such as foetal bovine serum which is obtained from the foetus of cows, making them equally inhumane a choice for those who abhor any form of animal slaughter. Such factors need to be accounted for before one can truly call laboratory grown meat fit for consumption by vegetarians as well. Plant based meat derived from soya and other forms of protein have already found its way into the market and there is a hope that laboratory grown meat without having to slaughter animals would also find its way to the plate soon.

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