Biting Into the First In Vitro Burger

Dutch scientists cooked up the first hamburger made from laboratory-grown meat. Researcher Nicholas Genovese, who is studying stem cell lines for in vitro meat, and journalist Josh Schonwald, who ate the burger, give us their review.

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IRA FLATOW, HOST:

Welcome back. I'm Ira Flatow. When you go to the supermarket these days and you take a walk down the meat aisle, there are so many types of products to choose from. You have your organic, your farm-raised, your free-range. What if laboratory-cultured was added to that list? This week, Dutch scientists cooked up a burger that they grew in a Petri dish using stem cells from beef.

This is not a new idea. Winston Churchill predicted in 1932 that, and I quote, "We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing by growing these parts separately, under suitable medium," unquote. Well, dinner has been served, and it is on a bun. Would you eat meat cured in a laboratory? What does it taste like? Is this the meat protein of the future?

Let me introduce my guest. Josh Schonwald is a Chicago-based journalist and author of "The Taste of Tomorrow: Dispatches From the Future of Food." He got to actually taste this in-vitro hamburger. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

JOSH SCHONWALD: Hi. How are you, Ira?

FLATOW: You're welcome. Nicholas Genovese is a visiting scholar at the University of Missouri in Columbia who is also - he's researching stem cell lines for in vitro meat, and he joins us from KBIA. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Genovese.

NICHOLAS GENOVESE: Hello, Ira.

FLATOW: What is the challenge - Doctor, what are the challenges of growing meat in the laboratory?

GENOVESE: Well, right now, there's three major challenges. One is you want to have a stem cell source that's self-renewing. This will allow indefinite or self-renewal of stem cells for scalable production and biomass production of large quantities of meat from small quantities of cells. The second major challenge is developing an animal-derived component-free cell culture medium to substitute cell culture media conventionally used in basic and biomedical research that normally would contain growth factors like animal serum, which would defeat the purpose of culture meat production.

A third challenge is the tissue-engineering process, the three-dimensional assembly of tissues. And this is not only to provide the appearance of conventionally produced meat product, but other challenges in terms of building a tissue thickness include creating channels to - in the tissue to allow the diffusion of waste and nutrients so you can have growth through the thickness of the tissue.

FLATOW: This does not sound very appetizing. (Laughing) Let's talk about how it was done; let's talk about the process that went into it. Basically, you take stem cells that are - come from beef, you put them in a Petri dish. They start reproducing and growing and creating the beef. And is that the end of the hamburger? Voila, you have a hamburger?

GENOVESE: Oh, that's an extremely simplistic view.

FLATOW: I thought so. (Laughing)

GENOVESE: I wish it was that easy.

FLATOW: Because I'm picturing then, you know, if it's regular cells sitting in a Petri dish, it's like goopy, like mucus sitting there in a dish, so to speak. Is that what it looks like?

GENOVESE: No - well, this is why the in-vitro differentiation and cell maturation and conditioning process is critical. First, you have stem cells, and there's various stem cell sources that have been proposed, but let's talk about adult skeletal muscle. The satellite stem cells will start from this. And then you want to fuse these stem cells into myotubes, and then you want to induce exercise, either a passive tension - you can think yoga - or an active contraction; you can think weightlifting.

FLATOW: Wait, wait, wait. You have to exercise the cells, like they're - because they're muscle cells?

GENOVESE: This helps in the maturation...

FLATOW: I see.

GENOVESE: ...process.

FLATOW: OK. Mr. Schonwald, you actually watched some of this happening?

SCHONWALD: I did. In 2009, when I was doing research for my book, "The Taste of Tomorrow," I visited Dr. Mark Post's lab and, you know, at that point had a chance to see some of the electro-stimulation and some of the efforts there were to do what Nicholas Genovese was just describing, you know, how they were trying to simulate yoga or weightlifting. You know, so as it was described to me, is if you don't do that, the meat will - the culture meat will have the texture of tofu.

But if you build the muscle, you know, then you can get the, you know, the texture and the mouthfeel of conventionally raised meat.

FLATOW: So you watched them do the weightlifting?

SCHONWALD: I watched them do the weightlifting. No, under a microscope. You know, you could barely - at that point, you could just see the twitching of the fibers. And it was not visually exciting.

FLATOW: What color was this while it was happening? Did it look like meat?

SCHONWALD: No. It looked like watching something microscopic. It was remotely a long way from, you know, what I was expecting. And that's why when I left the Netherlands in 2009, I was somewhat depressed about the prospects for lab-grown meat, because it seemed so far away.

FLATOW: And how long - how many years did it take to make this one burger?

SCHONWALD: It's my understanding that it's been five years to create this one burger, you know, at a cost of, I think, 330,000. But they don't have a huge team. You know, it's, like, a half a professor and a graduate student. So it's not as if they have deep resources.

FLATOW: Dr. Genovese, is this more than just a proof-of-concept? Because the meat producers are not jumping on the bandwagon here to do this, are they?

GENOVESE: This is one very important historical milestone in the process. There are going to be other milestones that need to be addressed before this product can be commercialized.

FLATOW: And what's the biggest hurdle here? You mentioned some of the challenges. Name the biggest one.

GENOVESE: You know, they're - the biggest challenge right now. Well, you know, you might hear different opinions from different people. My personal perspective is the foundation for this whole process is the stem cell source that you start from, and this is going to determine your ability to engineer tissues and how you can engineer the tissues and what types of culture media you can create.

Where Dr. Post's work is excellent is he actually was able to demonstrate a tangible product. I think that we also need to deconstruct from the foundation, the stem cell foundation, and work our way up, as well.

FLATOW: Mr. Schonwald, what did it taste like? You were selected - how did you become the lucky person?

SCHONWALD: How did I become the Neil Armstrong of lab-grown meat? I was invited by Dr. Post. And this all goes back to in 2009, when I was working on my book and I was, you know, the whole premise was that, you know, we're approaching a kind of peak meat situation where, you know, if you look at the growing meat consumption patterns in India and China and the, you know, limited resources, the huge amount of land and water used for animal livestock, you know, there has to be another solution. There has to be an alternative.

And in exploring that, I became fascinated with this idea of - I went to the only place in the world which, at the time, was seriously investigating, you know, bringing this reality, and that was in the Netherlands. While I was there, I, you know, I spent about a week there and I met Dr. Post and the other members of the team and, you know, I had sort of gone there in hopes - you know, the name of my book is "The Taste of Tomorrow."

So, whenever possible, you know, in talking about the future, I'd also like to have a taste of the future. So I had sort of gone there in hopes of getting a nibble. Now, I had, even before I went to the Netherlands, I had sort of been teased, I'll say, by one of the earliest evangelists of the idea of lab-grown meat. His name is Jason Matheny, and Jason started this organization called New Harvest, which is still in existence and still talks about the work of people like Dr. Genovese and Dr. Post.

And Jason, you know, I asked him, Jason, like, is there a chance that I'll have the opportunity to actually try this? And Jason told me, well, you know, it's technically illegal, because they have the equivalent of an FDA there, and it still is technically illegal. But he said, you know, if you get to know them and if you get them drunk, maybe they'll give you a chance. So he kind of like - he had a little bit of - obviously, when I got there and I met the scientists and I saw the microscopic tendons twitching, you know, it was preposterous to think that there is any chance of eating it. So, no way.

FLATOW: Yeah. So how does it taste?

SCHONWALD: It tastes somewhere between not bad, OK and decent. I mean, it's got a - it's a very - it has a very neutral flavor. I mean, to break that down, I mean, for me, you know, in the waking - in the moments before trying it, of course, I was worried that it was going to be bad. You know, I was going to - worried that it was going to have a - you know, provoke a gagging reflex, you know, since I rarely have a chance to eat in front of, you know, cameras and the whole world. So I was most worried about that.

But what it has is the - there's a, you know - there was a crunchy kind of exterior which I guess you might describe as kind of being like when you're biting into a biscuit. The thing that was most familiar and I thought best about it was that the texture kind of had a familiar feel to real meat. It was very dry, you know? It has - it's like the leanest meat, so it's not very flavorful.

So, you know, kind of the way that I've been describing it to people is it's kind of like the protein equivalent of pasta or rice. You know, it's not something that you would eat by itself; like it needs ketchup, or it needs salt or cracked, ground pepper or something. But, you know, in the end, I was, you know, I was pleased because it feels like a start. You know, they insisted on not allowing us to use any condiments, and...

FLATOW: Was it grilled? How was it prepared? What did - what color was it? Was it augmented to look like a burger?

SCHONWALD: OK. First of all, much to my disappointment, it was not grilled. It was fried. Secondly, the color, you know, originally started, I believe, with kind of a - I think a lighter, more of a chicken color. But they - Dr. Post and Peter Verstrate, the other researcher - have used a mixture of saffron, beet juice and caramel to create a reddish color.

FLATOW: Because there are no blood vessels in there for the red color. Yeah.

SCHONWALD: Right. There are no - they're - and Dr. Genovese probably knows quite a bit more about this than I do, but, you know, that is one of the challenges is to add more blood for the flavor. I know that they're - yeah.

FLATOW: Let me just take a break, remind everybody that this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

And let me ask that question of Dr. Genovese. Is that one of the challenges, to make it taste more like real beef?

GENOVESE: Adding blood? I believe that Dr. Post had referred to adding myoglobin, which is similar to hemoglobin in blood. This is found in skeletal muscle, and it's responsible for the red pigment in meat. And it contains an iron heme-containing moiety, and this can add to the color and potentially the flavor.

But I would like to give a different, much different perspective on the lack of fat and the lack of myoglobin. And I want to say that's a really good thing, because heme iron is known to be a dietary etiological risk factor for premature death associated with red meat consumption, as are saturated fat, and this burger contained neither.

There was a 2012 study published from the Harvard School of Public Health that identified that red meat, decreased red meat in the diet could prevent mortality risk in the cohort, which was studied over 20 years - it's 120,000 people - could decrease mortality risk eight to nine percent. And when we consider that there's 2.4 million people that die in the United States every year, this is a huge number.

So while taste is important, when we weigh this lack of saturated fat and this lack of heme iron in the myoglobin, you know, against the taste and say, hey, well, maybe this is a great platform for a chef or a food technologist to take this animal protein platform and add healthy fats, add healthy colors, like the natural beet juice that Mark Post had added, and keep on improving the process in a healthy way, then maybe Mark Post's hamburger is really starting off in the right direction.

FLATOW: So where do you go from here? What's the next step, Nicholas?

GENOVESE: What's the next step? The next step - this is a huge multilateral effort, and there's many steps. One is to establish self-renewing stem cell sources for - so you don't need biopsies. You can have an animal-independent process, along with animal-derived component-free cell culture media. This way - and another step is to develop stem cells from different species: chicken, pigs and cattle.

FLATOW: You can have a real hamburger made out of ham.

GENOVESE: Yeah. There you go. Or even species that people would like to try but haven't had the opportunity to try. One could get very creative with this. But practically speaking, this is going - it's - we're still a decade or two away from seeing the simplest product, but there's tremendous opportunity to address public health issues, food security issues and animal welfare issues.

Don't forget that 60 billion animals are slaughtered each year for human consumption, and a lot of meat consumers aren't too happy about that. And the demand for meat consumption is only going to increase between 60 and 100 percent by 2050. So these are issues that we really need to be proactive in addressing, and culture meat is one approach in a multilateral solution towards addressing these issues.

FLATOW: OK. 30 seconds, Josh. Is this vegetarian or not?

SCHONWALD: It is not entirely vegetarian right now, but that is clearly the spirit of what is being pursued. You know, right now, they're using fetal bovine serum in the culture. They want to eliminate that. But just to add one point to what Nicholas said, you know, clearly, one of the most exciting things is the idea of having a healthy hamburger. A chapter in my book is called the "The Guilt-Free, Heart-Attack-Fighting Super Burger." That's one of the promises of this approach.

FLATOW: All right. All right.

SCHONWALD: And then, secondly, the final thing I wanted to say is...

FLATOW: Quick.

SCHONWALD: ...one of the most exciting things about this is the involvement of Google, Sergey Brin.

FLATOW: Right.

SCHONWALD: You know, this is someone who's got the resources to...

FLATOW: All right. We've got to stop it right there. Thank you, Josh Schonwald and Nicholas Genovese, talking about that burger. We'll be right back after this break. I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

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