Alireza Etemadi

Is it possible to grow a beefburger? The Cambridge Department of Clinical Neurosciences is pioneering a new method of growing specialised cells from stem cells that could lead the way in preventing a global food crisis.

Livestock farming has one of the largest environmental impacts of any industry, requiring a remarkable amount of natural resources. To produce just 1kg of beef requires 15,000 litres of water, almost as much as one year of showers. On top of this, the ethical arguments concerning raising an animal for slaughter are increasingly under question, leading many to seek alternative diets and food production methods.

The science fiction-like idea of growing meat in a lab is not a new one. Previous research in this area has been focused on the growth of muscle precursor cells; however, these not only have a limited lifespan, but require serum made from animals to keep them alive, meaning they aren’t totally cruelty-free.

Dr Mark Kotter stumbled across a new solution to this problem when researching a method for the rapid differentiation of pluripotent stem cells into specific cell types. Pluripotent stem cells are extremely adaptable and have the potential to differentiate into any of the three germ layers (the primary layer of cells that forms in an embryo).

Kotter was interested in the biomedical applications of growing these cells for treatment of diseases such as Alzheimer’s and heart disease. Differentiating pluripotent cells is usually a complicated and lengthy process, and can take several months from start to finish; however, Kotter’s research group has found a way to turn on a particular subset of genes allowing cells to grow in a matter of days, in a technique called OPTi-OX.

“This alternative method may hold the answer to the future of meat consumption”

Kotter has since collaborated with Daan Luining, founder of the Dutch company Meatable, which will use the OPTi-OX technique to convert pluripotent cells into bovine muscle and fat cells and manufacture beef burgers. The method involves taking cells from the umbilical cord after a calf has been born and reprogramming them into an induced pluripotent stem cell, meaning that no animals need be harmed in the process. After an initial research and develompemt period of three years, Meatable claims its methods will be able repeat the manufacturing cycle in three weeks or less, with one cell being sufficient to sustain the technique and “create enough burgers to feed the world”.

As this generation becomes more and more aware of the ethical and environmental implications of eating meat, veganism is becoming increasingly popular. In a survey by The Vegan Society, it was estimated that there are 600,000 vegans living in the UK, almost quadruple the number there were in 2014. The food industry has also started to cater to this trend. Dairy company Danone invested $60 million last year in dairy-free products, ice-cream brands such as Ben and Jerry’s and Häagen-Dazs have begun to produce mainstream vegan options, and in 2017 the UK meat free market was estimated to be worth £527 million.

Growth of meat in a lab could help to meet the growing demands of an increasingly environmentally-conscious public. Despite its many negative repercussions, meat contains nutrients that a completely plant based diet cannot provide and switching to a meat free diet is not considered an option by many. This alternative method may hold the answer to the future of meat consumption.

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