Imagine eating meat without harming an animal, no factory farm, no slaughterhouse. Teams of scientists at universities around the world are trying to grow meat in petri dishes from the stem cells of animals. As you can imagine, there's a lot of challenges they face, technical and ethical.

My guest Michael Specter writes about this new research in his article, "Test Tube Burgers," published in the current edition of The New Yorker. Specter writes about science for the magazine.

Michael Specter, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

Mr. MICHAEL SPECTER (Science writer, The New Yorker): It's a pleasure to be here. Thank you.

GROSS: There's something inherently creepy about the idea of growing meat in a laboratory. But part of the motivation behind the idea is sparing animals from the treatment they get in those big factory farms. Can you talk about some of the motivations behind the idea of growing meat - some of the humane and environmental motivations?

Mr. SPECTER: Well, there are quite a few motivations. First, I would say that there is something inherently creepy about it. But there is more inherently creepy about the way we deal with the animals that we eat, and that's one of the important motivations for this.

Billions of animals, literally billions, are grown only to be killed and they are treated like factory widgets. They are shot with antibiotics and hormones and they live a horrible life and they often die quite cruelly. So the idea of being able to eliminate some of that because I don't think this is going to be a situation where we're going to eliminate all of if is extremely exciting for a lot of people.

There are other motivations that in some ways are even more compelling, and those are environmental motivations and they have to do with the size of our planet and the number of people who live on it and the pressures that we're putting on the Earth and that we will put on the Earth over the next 50 or so years.

We now have seven billion people. There will be nine billion by 2050. Those people need food. They need protein. They tend to eat better as they get wealthier. And better unfortunately, means a little bit more like Americans a lot of meat. And a lot of meat means using a lot of land, a lot of water, a lot of grass and a lot of grain, and we don't have that much room for any of it.

There's also the issue of climate change, because lots of animals emit lots of methane into the atmosphere and climate change is a serious problem when we look at the food supply.

So when we add all this up we have to look at alternate ways to feed the people who are coming to this planet and this is certainly an alternative.

GROSS: So let's talk about how scientists are experimenting with growing meat in the laboratories. Is this with stem cells, with cloning?

Mr. SPECTER: It's primarily with stem cells. They'll take a couple cells let's say from a pig. They will put them in a nutrient broth, a bunch of amino acids and sugars basically, sometimes fetal serum, and it will grow. And as it grows they will then try to turn those cells, which are muscle cells because that's mostly - when we talk about eating meat we're mostly talking about eating muscle. They will take those muscles cells and put them on a platform that is sort of normally a biodegradable plastic scaffolding. And that allows the cells to fuse together and become muscle tissue.

And the idea is as you grow those cells into muscle tissue, you grow the tissue, and you eventually have the same sort of meat, exactly the same meat that you would take from the flesh of an animal.

GROSS: Except that?

Mr. SPECTER: Except that it isn't.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SPECTER: I mean this is the thing and it's a philosophical thing as much as a scientific thing: What is meat? I mean if they come from to cells and they are grown, is that different from coming from the back of a living animal? It -to some people the answer to that is yes. I'm not sure.

GROSS: Well, in addition to the philosophical questions, you have like starting with the basics, the texture questions. As you point out in your piece, muscle needs to be exercised. It needs to be worked and stretched or else it atrophies. So if I have a piece of like artificial meat that you've grown in a lab, it's not going to be walking and running and moving around. So like what is muscle that has never ever moved?

Mr. SPECTER: I believe the term for that is fat. But...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SPECTER: What they do with this is clever. They - you do have to stimulate muscle whether you're out there running around or whether you're in a petri dish. The way they stimulate muscle these days is electrical impulses and you can sort of zap and it will do what you need it to do.

The problem with that is if we're talking about growing meat in a lab or in a factory, we're talking about enormous quantities of it and it's difficult to see our way to zapping tons of electricity into muscle cells, because it will just be, if nothing else, extremely costly. So while that works in a lab and it works well, they are looking at other ways to do it. And the main way they're looking at it is using chemical signals from the animal's body to sort of mimic the same electrical impulses. And that seems to be working but it's early days for that.

GROSS: So now I'm picturing, and tell me if this is an accurate picture, I'm picturing this artificial piece of meat twitching in a petri dish.

Mr. SPECTER: I hate to use the word twitching.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Okay.

Mr. SPECTER: I don't think it's entirely inaccurate to say there would have to be some sort of impulse stimulation. I don't think the meat would actually twitch. I don't think it would actually move. Lots of times you can have pass electrical currents through things and you don't notice it and the thing that's being passed through doesn't notice it. It's not like it's an electric chair, it's a small electrical charge. But, yes, it's got to be stimulated in some way because it's muscle, and muscle is muscle.

GROSS: Now you know how a lot of health food stores and Chinese restaurants have soy that's flavored as chicken or beef, and...

Mr. SPECTER: Sad - yeah. Sadly, I do.


(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So is that going to be the premise behind artificially made meat too, that it would be flavored in the way soy is or flavored in the way - I mean this is different. It's not meat but there's like rice that's flavored to be -rice extract flavored to be like mozzarella cheese. I mean they've really got flavoring down.

Mr. SPECTER: Yeah, they do have flavoring down and when I talk to people I said well, you know, what's this going to taste like? And they basically said, that is not an issue worth worrying about.

There were some kids in a scientific competition a year ago up at MIT who made E. coli, which is a bacteria that smells god-awful. They made it smell like wintergreen for half of its reproductive cycle...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SPECTER: ...and bananas for the other half. These are college kids. So this stuff can be done both in terms of smell and taste.

I don't think it's fair to make the analogy to soy proteins or things like that. This will be meat. I talked to one scientist and I mentioned this as synthetic meat and she got annoyed. She said this isn't synthetic, it's organic. It's meat. It's two meat cells growing to become more meat cells. And depending on what your definition of any sort of life is, this is as fundamental as any animal is.

GROSS: So Michael, what's the closest thing in the world now in terms of growing tissues and cells to growing meat? I know there's a lot of work on like growing organs, there's a lot of cancer research. So what's the closest to what you're looking at, which is meat?

Mr. SPECTER: I think the people who are doing the research here tend to be tissue scientists and they often come from the field where they were working on trying to make hearts, livers, kidneys. There are quite a few bladders out there in the world that are made in labs and in people and have been functioning for some while. And the reason that those people moved into the meat thing is because they realize it's the same exact technology.

If you can make a bladder, if you can shape it and you can make those cells interact properly and you can make them live off the oxygen supply that is delivered by arteries, you could do that with meat. So I would have to say the closest thing are some of the organs that are now being developed in some of our best labs.

GROSS: So assuming you're trying to create beef, is it stem cells from a cow that you're using to start with?

Mr. SPECTER: Yes. If you want to create lamb you take stem cells from a lamb. If you want chicken, stem cells from a chicken. I should probably make it clear if I haven't that right now what we're talking about is ground meat, and that's more than half of the meat that's eaten in the world. To make a steak or a lamb chop or a pork chop is much more complicated because it involves all sorts of arteries and getting oxygen to cells and getting blood to move around and circulate and have fat marbled in.

That's a very complicated three-dimensional architecture and it's not as simple as getting meat, chopping it up and calling it a hamburger. So the ground meat I think probably could be done rather rapidly. I think it's going to be a pretty long time before we grow a porterhouse steak.

GROSS: So you visited a couple of labs that are trying to make meat. What did you actually see?

Mr. SPECTER: What you see there is a sort of sterile environment with incubators where you can put a bunch of petri dishes to grow under ideal conditions. And you will see little teeny dots that are actually muscle cells. And sometimes you'll see muscle fiber that has been grown together from those dots. They lie on beds of sort of Velcro or pink plastic in a little Plexiglas box and it ain't the farm. It's about as far away from real life as you might think but that is where these foodstuffs are being created.

GROSS: So is the biggest slab of beef that they have so far a little dot in a petri dish?

Mr. SPECTER: Yes. The biggest slab - there are quite a few slabs this size, but they are about the size of a contact lens, which you think is ridiculous. It's millions of cells and it's one of these situations where if you can grow millions of cells you should be able to grow many many billions of cells.

But they have started out really very thoughtfully. They want to make sure that the science works before they try scaling it up. And they all sort of feel -many people feel that scaling it up is not the issue that it will - that will happen. It's an engineering problem and if there is money you can scale something up. But right now that's not where they are. Right now they want to make sure you can grow the meat, you can grow it in a healthy way so that the cells work and engineer it so that it's actually something you'd want to eat.

GROSS: So you haven't tasted any of this but have the scientists tasted any of it?

Mr. SPECTER: Yeah.

GROSS: Or is it not ready to be tasted yet?

Mr. SPECTER: It's we're pre-taste. We're just in the stage of growing cells as opposed to growing tissue. So we haven't even gotten to the point where you'd, you know, see a chicken breast or something like that. That could have been somewhat rapidly, but there's another issue too, which is it's hard to taste something like that because you don't know what's in it and so no scientist is going to let you taste it because if you were to keel over it would tend to be bad for its funding. So these things have to be approved by the FDA and by organizations in Europe like the FDA before anyone could be chomping down on such things.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael Specter. He writes about science for the New Yorker magazine and we're talking about his current article "Test Tube Burgers. How long will it be before you can eat meat that was made in a lab?

Michael, let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more.

Mr. SPECTER: Sure.


(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael Specter. He writes about science for The New Yorker. We're talking about his current article "Test Tube Burgers" and it's about scientists who are trying to create artificial meat in laboratories.

So if these experiments did succeed, do you think they could succeed on a big enough scale to actually make a difference in the food crisis?

Mr. SPECTER: Yes, they could. There's a lot of ifs there and one of them I really think is the most important if really is the will of people to do this. But if you look at other technologies, if you look at the human genome project for instance, that was supposed to cost more than $3 billion and take 13 years to sequence the genome of one man starting in 1986, I believe. We can now do that in an evening for 1,000 bucks. It's not that many years later.

You look at computer processing, things that cost literally a million dollars 50 years ago, are cheaper than I would put in a $10 watch right now. So that kind of thinking happened with this technology but it would need the support -that only happens when people want to buy the stuff and when they want to invest.

It's sort of a weird snowball. You have to get someone to get excited and then when someone's excited other people get excited. But until someone gets excited everyone's sitting there saying eh, who wants to do this? How can we do this? But scientifically, technologically, there isn't any reason why this couldn't be really significant.

GROSS: We mentioned that the Netherlands has contributed to what - $2 billion, $2 million? What is it?

Mr. SPECTER: Two million.

GROSS: Two million.

Mr. SPECTER: Two million euros.

GROSS: Yeah. I guess that's not that much. But...

Mr. SPECTER: It's nothing in the scale of these things.

GROSS: Yeah. But you described, nevertheless, the Netherlands as having become the Silicon Valley of artificial meat.

Mr. SPECTER: True.

GROSS: I guess I'm not supposed to say artificial meat.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: It's lab-grown meat. But what's happening in the United States? Is there any action here?

Mr. SPECTER: They're a couple firms, sort of small firms exploring it. There are some researchers at different institutions, including a guy named Vladimir Mironov who is at the University of South Carolina and is soon moving to another university, I'm not sure which, who's been doing this for a long time. And he, like the guys in the Netherlands, his background is as a tissue researcher, as a person who is trying to figure out how to make organs that we can replace our organs with because we have a terrible organ donor shortage.

So there's a bunch of theoretical work. There's lots of regenerative medicine going on in this country, which is very similar to this meat work, but the specifics of the meat isn't being done anywhere all that much. In part because nobody and people are going to have to be brought around to the idea that this is worth doing. They're, you know, they're going to want their cheap meat at the supermarket and some people are going to want expensive organic animals grass fed and neither of those two things will fit into this paradigm.

GROSS: Now there are ethical motivations behind lab grown meat, including trying to spare animals from the horrible treatment that they get in these factory farms. But are there ethical challenges on the other side, ethical questions about growing meat in a lab?

Mr. SPECTER: Sure. When, I think there is what people described as a high yuk factor when people talk about this. And people want to know, as they do with many food substances that have been manipulated in different ways, who's doing what to it? Who's getting what out of it? How do we know it's safe? How do we know that these cells are really just meat cells and they are not contaminated and some strange way? There will have to be a lot of discussion, debate and a learning curve. There's no question about it.

There are ethical debates about a variety of this sort of thing. Right now they're trying to, there's a company that wants FDA approval for a salmon that it engineered to grow twice fast as normal salmon. And the idea would be obviously, you grow them faster, you get more protein, it's quicker, it's better. Lots of people don't see it that way. They're actually repulsed by this idea and that's clearly going to happen with this and there's going to be a learning curve

And what I think is it's worth having the debate and the discussion, because the stakes, the ethical stakes, the animal welfare stakes, the environmental stakes, the climate change stakes are really really high.

GROSS: You know all the concerns about genetically modified foods and, you know...

Mr. SPECTER: I'm aware of them.

GROSS: Yeah, and a lot of people won't I'm sure you are. And a lot of people won't buy genetically modified foods because they think it's bad for crops and they think it might be bad for their own bodies. Are there similar concerns surrounding artificially created meat?

Mr. SPECTER: There will be. I don't think we're at the point where we're in widespread concern yet but there will be and that's why we need to talk about it because for instance, the health concerns around genetically modified foods are just unsubstantiated. We've been eating them by the we've been growing them by millions of hectors for years and years. There has never been one substantiated case of illness ever on Earth as a result of eating genetically modified foods. There are environmental issues as there are issues with everything you ever grow or eat or do.

But in terms of health, that isn't an issue yet, it's seen as an issue. And what needs to happen is people need to have conversations about thing so that they understand what the pluses and what the minuses are.

And one of the pluses, by the way, of growing this kind of meat is that almost two billion folks go to bed hungry every night in the world today. It's not so much, you know, in Berkeley or Union Square in New York or Silver Spring, Maryland that we necessarily need this meat. But if we could do this in such a way that people who have no protein and are either eating no protein or trying to eat wild animals like monkeys and gorillas to stay alive, could get this kind of meat and get it at a fair price and know that it was healthy for them, that would be wonderful.

GROSS: So did you walk away from this piece thinking you're likely to have a test tube burger in your lifetime?

Mr. SPECTER: No, yeah, I do. I do. I think that this will happen. I think it will happen not in the next year or two but I'd be surprised if 10 years from now I wasn't able to have one. I would be surprised if 10 years from now I was able to go into, you know, my local burger joint and say test tube burger please. But I think they will be available. They will begin to be costly and then the cost will come down, as with all technology. But I don't see any reason why this couldn't happen soon.

GROSS: Well, it's an interesting story. And I want to thank you for talking with us about it.

Mr. SPECTER: Always a pleasure.

GROSS: Michael Specter's article "Test Tube Burgers" is published in the May 23rd edition of The New Yorker. You'll find a link to it on our website, freshair.npr.org.

Michael Specter is also the author of the book "Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives."

I'm Terry Gross.

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