Written by Julia Hoffman, ESLLC 2016-2017
At the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands, Prof. Mark Post created the first ever cell-cultured hamburger. How and what and why are some questions you may be asking yourself.. well let me give you some context!
The Dutch government agency, SenterNovem, funded cultured meat research from 2005 to 2009, in part because of conversations between New Harvest founder Jason Matheny and the Dutch Minister of Agriculture in October of 2004. The research program was initiated by Willem Van Eelen, an 86-year-old entrepreneur who had been fascinated by cultured meat for decades and was soon taken over by Prof. Mark Post. They received many grants and spent countless hours in laboratories and by 2013 they had engineered a whole hamburger from one tiny sample of muscle tissue.
The process is called muscle cell tissue culturing, which although sounds confusing is rather simple. They harvest a tiny sample of muscle tissue and is sliced into even tiner pieces to separate the muscle fibers. Once they separate the fat cells and muscle cells in the muscle tissue, individual cells can be removed and cultured in a Petri dish. From one muscle cell over 1 trillion new cells can be grown. The cells naturally merge together forming myotubes. Since muscle fibers naturally contract, the tubes conglomerate together forming new muscle tissue. Then they layer trillions of muscle tissues on top of one another and voila you have a hamburger!
There are many advantages to lab grown meat. Obviously no animals were “humanely slaughtered” in the making of this burger. Beef is also incredibly unsustainable. The raising of cattle for beef accounts for a large amount of deforestation, and land use. Think about all the food that we are feeding to cattle that we could be feeding to people! Also all the trees we are loosing which filter greenhouse gasses and produce oxygen! Not to mention one hamburger takes over 200 gallons of water to produce! The sustainable implications of cultured beef could me HUGE if we invest in this break through technology.
The only downside as of right now is the cost. The burger cost €250,000 to produce. It cost this much because the project took place at laboratory scale. The technicians making the burger did so by producing very small strands of beef in standard tissue culture flasks, and repeating this work several thousands of times. The price of the burger was so high because it included the salaries of skilled technicians doing very time-consuming work and consuming expensive laboratory supplies.
In 2013 the hamburger was cooked and tasted on live television in London, England. The event was attended by 200 journalists from around the world, the academics who worked on the Dutch Cultured Meat Project, and New Harvest. (There are YouTube videos of the events if you’re interested.) The food critics said the burger tasted very similar to a regular burger and the chef who prepared it said it held together just like any other burger would. That is because it is just like any other burger! Down the molecular level this burger is basically the exact same as any other burger you’ve eaten. It’s all muscle tissue!
In early 2015, New Harvest provided Mark’s lab with $50,000 to do more research on a completely animal-free system for growing cultured meat. The first cell cultured beef hamburger was an important milestone in cellular agriculture. It showed the world that creating cultured meat was scientifically possible – and that from here onwards, the most important innovations in culturing meat will be how to produce it in large quantities for a reasonable price