By David Cohen
Mark Post has been given €300,000 to make a hamburger, in one year. Easy money, you might think, but try doing that without using meat that has come from an animal.
Professor Post is one of the few people on the planet who can. As head of the department of vascular physiology at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, he is in the vanguard of a new wave of research to create a way of producing meat that cuts out the need for animal husbandry altogether.
Instead of getting meat from animals raised in pastures, he wants to grow steaks in lab conditions, directly from muscle stem cells. If successful, the technology will transform the way we produce food. “We want to turn meat production from a farming process to a factory process,” he explained.
Prof Post is not the first to dream this dream. In the mid 20th Century, Dutchman Willem van Eelen – back then a budding medical student – dreamt of creating meat without killing animals, by using stem cells.
A stem cell is a special type of cell capable of replicating itself many many times and differentiating into specialised cell types, such as muscle cells.
Dr van Eelen pursued his dream for decades, but made little progress. Then in 1999 he was granted a patent on the idea and slowly the world started to take notice.
In 2002, NASA took a passing interest in the idea and funded Morris Benjaminson at Touro College, New York, to investigate making meat from muscle cells as a way to feed astronauts on deep space journeys.
Dr Benjaminson removed a sample of cells from the muscle of a goldfish and managed to grow it outside the fish’s body. The fillet was marinated in garlic, lemon, pepper and olive oil and deep-fried. A panel of testers inspected the fillet and said it smelt and looked just like the real thing, but they weren’t allowed to eat it because of US laws prohibiting consumption of experimental products.
Unfortunately, NASA decided there were easier and cheaper ways to feed astronauts, and stopped funding Dr Benjaminson. In 2005 Dr van Eelen finally convinced the Dutch government to support research into test tube meat to the tune of €2 million.
A series of projects were set up. One explored how embryonic stem cells could be coaxed to become muscle cells, a second study investigated how muscle might be made to grow larger, and a third investigated what sort of growth medium would be optimal for creating steaks in the lab. That money recently ran out and the projects were scaled down.
Then, earlier this year, an anonymous philanthropist got in touch with Prof Post, who for a while worked with Dr van Eelen’s colleagues, and offered to pay him to make a hamburger out of Petri-dish pork. “It is likely the most expensive hamburger that we will ever see on this planet,” said Prof Post.