IRA FLATOW, host:
You're listening to Talk of the Nation: Science Friday. I'm Ira Flatow. Spring is here. Perhaps you are already barbecuing in these warm spring, almost summer days. What if your next tasty tenderloin came from a test tube instead of a cattle ranch? Or the chicken in that shish kebab was grown in a laboratory instead of on a poultry farm? Would you feel any different about eating it? And if you are a vegetarian, would the lab-grown beef or chicken turn you into a nouveau meat eater? Well, animal rights organization PETA is beta testing a - and they are betting that the test tube meat is the way of the future and it is offering a one-million-dollar prize. Are you listening? You can win a prize here. A lot of science is being done by prizes these days.
You can win a million bucks to be the first scientist who gets there first, if you can develop test-tube tenderloin. That is what we are going to dub it this hour. They will pay the money to any scientist who makes chicken in the lab that looks and feels and tastes the same as the real thing, or tenderloin or beef, and not only do you have to make it. You have to be able to ramp it up to commercial scale and get it all in the stores and in the meat freezers by 2012. You have got until 2012 to come up with your test-tube tenderloin. Joining us now is a scientist who is working in the field. He is here to talk about the science behind test-tube meat, and the problems that still need to be worked out if that million-dollar meat will make it out of the lab and onto the table.
If you would like to get in on the discussion, our number is 1-800-989-8255. 1-800-989-TALK. You can also find us in Second Life on Science Friday Island. Vladimir Mironov is an associate professor in the Department of Cell Biology and Anatomy at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. Doctor Mironov joins us by phone from Singapore, where he is currently the Tan Chin Tuan Fellow at the Nanyang Technical University. Welcome to the program, Dr. Mironov.
Dr. VLADIMIR MIRONOV (Associate Professor, Department of Cell Biology and Anatomy, Medical University of South Carolina): Welcome. Hello.
FLATOW: Hello. Tell us how, how - is there new science that has to happen here, or is this basically an engineering problem?
Dr. MIRONOV: Oh, that is a very good question. Because you know, scientists usually investigate world which already exists. Engineers create world which is never exist. So I think when you talk about tissue engineering meat, it is not so much scientific task. It is more engineering task. And if you ask me about scientific aspect, then in 1907, American Ross Harrison was the first, probably, scientist who isolate cells and start to grow cells in cell culture. Therefore, from scientific point of view, this is one-hundred-year-old technology.
FLATOW: So the idea is to take cells, grow them in culture, and allow them to grow enough that you recreate the meat?
Dr. MIRONOV: Yes. Basically, it is the field what is moving already, last 20 years, called tissue engineering. But tissue engineering focusing on creating tissue and organs for repair and replacement in human body, and the novelty of our approach is that we want to think about another aspect of tissue engineering to create basically food. And there are several challenges which is left of course, but basically, from my perspective, I don't see unsolvable problem how to transfer this technology in that scalable technology. But I'm really skeptical that one million dollars will be enough.
(Soundbite of laughter)
FLATOW: Yes, we have had other prizes in the 10 and 20 million dollar range. This is not that much, is it?
Dr. MIRONOV: Yeah.
FLATOW: Now tell us about the challenges that you just mentioned. What are some of the challenges that await you?
Dr. MIRONOV: I can say that basically there is five main challenges. Number one, you must of course find appropriate cell source. And there is two groups of the people - two point of views. One belief that you must start from embryonic cells because they are multipotent, and they have high proliferation potential. But because they are not differentiated, you know, you must spend a lot of effort to force them to go to skeletal muscle lineage and it needs special grow factors or transcription factors, therefore it is challenging.
But the good sense of it, embryonic cells that they can - embryonic stem cells that they can proliferate and they have very low conflict(ph) effect. So, the second group of the people believe that it is better to start from so-called myoblast. It's a progenitor cell - it is a cell which has a periphery of skeletal fibers, which is already committed to be a skeletal muscle. But from another side, their proliferation potential, so-called traffic number, is a little bit limited. So what will be the decision? What will be solution? It will show the time.
FLATOW: And what do you grow the cells in?
Dr. MIRONOV: Oh, that's very good question. That's the second question because in standard cell culture, people use, of course, some kind of fluid which imitate blood, without erythrocytes of course, and the main component of cell culture media is serum which has animal origin. So there's not any point to create animal-free tissue-engineered meat if you still use animal-derived serum. So the challenge is to design so-called defined cell culture media which contain all necessary and sufficient elements to allow cells to grow and don't contain any unknown element like black box, like serum, and also which is relatively economically reasonable, because I can say that serum and cell culture is very expensive now.
FLATOW: How close to texture feel taste would the synthetic meat, so to speak, the test-tube meat come to normal real meat from an animal?
Dr. MIRONOV: This is again an interesting point, but I don't believe - and I don't believe it's necessary that tissue-engineered meat must have taste and texture of real chicken meat. There's two reasons for this. Number one, if you go to grocery store, there's a lot of product which doesn't have any taste of real meat or real skeletal muscle like nuggets or sausage, you know. So the point is to create a protein which - healthy animal protein. That's one aspect. The second aspect is technological.
If you really want to create meat with the taste and texture, that's became much more challenging because then you must produce not only skeletal fibers from myoblast, you must also produce fat tissue which is not a big deal and also produce blood vessels because if the tissue became very thick then you must have blood culture and then you must have connective tissue which create this texture, and that became very, very complicated. And most important it's not scalable, and if it's not scalable then it's not industrial-friendly. If it's not industrial-friendly, then you'll never produce this in a large scale.
FLATOW: We have a question here from Bauer(ph) in Second Life, who says, "would it be a good idea to combine genes of animals and mushrooms for example in such a way the meat could be cultured as mushrooms are or to have plants make the meat for us?"
Dr. MIRONOV: Yeah, there's some people who believe - actually there's a discussion Web site in Europe, and they don't like the idea of tissue-engineered meat. They call this American cultural imperialism, McDonald's again, but one name for this technology. They call this hydroponic meat, and I think this reflects the point. We don't use any genetical engineering. We don't modify the cells. We use natural cells and try to put them in natural or, we call this bio-mimicking environment, and we want to create tissue which look like natural tissue. So, there's no any genetical modification here. And concerning the mushrooms, I hear of two type of discussion. One people say that you can use this for cell culture media which I don't understand completely. And another interesting idea that if you look at mushrooms, they have so-called chitosan and chitosan is very interesting polymer because, number one, it's eatable and number two, it absorbs fat. So, basically, you can create - if you combine - use chitosan as a scaffold or temporal support for these cells, and cells need support because they are attachment-dependent. If you grow them all in suspension, they will not grow. They must attach to something. If you attach them to the bottom, then you have only limit scaffold(ph). So, fills(ph) or sponges that will increase surface area for cells and to make technology more effective. So, chitosan, which is eatable and which also absorbs fat, can create tissue-engineering meat which will be not only useful, but also can be sold as a functional food because it can reduce fat consumption.
FLATOW: So, you could have a big giant portabello mushroom that already looks and tastes almost like beef, but actually have real beef in it?
Dr. MIRONOV: Look, I'm an animal specialist, OK? And you ask me questions about mushrooms.
FLATOW: OK, we'll move on to it. We'll move on to stuff that's right here a little more - our listeners are very eager to talk about this. But you could make the meat, as you say, to specification. You could make it less fatty, or for example, or more nutritious as you'd like to produce it?
Dr. MIRONOV: I think if you - the taste of the meat depends on percent of fat. Therefore, we can take again stem cells and force them to be fat cells. And then we can make mixture of skeletal fibers with the fat cells. Therefore, in this context it's not a big challenge. The second aspect is how to make texture. I think that's the challenging stuff.
FLATOW: Yeah, making tex... - 1-800-989-8255. Lots of people want to ring in on this. Hi, Dan, in Washington. Welcome.
DAN (Caller): Hi. How are you?
FLATOW: Hi there.
DAN: I think this is a great program.
FLATOW: Thank you.
DAN: I have been a vegan for about five years, and I'm a vegan just because of the way I understand animals are treated in factory farms. So, I'm a big supporter of this. I would certainly eat this meat if it becomes marketable. One question I have, I understand that there is a big environmental impact on - when factory farms produce meat, and was wondering if this sort of test-tube meat would be better for the environment.
FLATOW: Good question.
Dr. MIRONOV: Yeah, it's a very good question. And one of my friends, Jason who run this Web site, New Harvest, he is especially focusing on this area. And according to his calculations is, in proper environment of tissue engineering, meat technologies are enormous because it's actually the use of area which are occupied by growing wheat and other stuff which you need to grow animals. And, I believe, another important impact is also that if you do it indoors, then you can use land on the earth much more effectively. And because it will be with the FDA-controlled environment, it will be probably very clean, very high-tech technology.
FLATOW: This is Talk of the Nation: Science Friday from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow, talking with Vladimir Mironov about test-tube meat. Lots of people have various opinions about it. Let's get a couple of more from Lucy in Chicago. Hi, Lucy.
LUCY (Caller): Yes, hello. My husband of - I wish he were here. He's currently at work. But he went through MIT in the Department of Nutrition and Food Technology with a NASA scholarship. His fellowship and scholarship required him to find ways to produce food including meat on space flight through using waste product, specifically Escherichia coli. And I just wanted to say that, you know, using a tissue culture is not the only the only way to do this. You can use waste product, as unpleasant as it sounds, and come out with a great number of food products that could resemble very closely the real thing. I just wanted to have your - just comment on that.
FLATOW: OK. Let me get a comment.
Dr. MIRONOV: Yeah. In Soviet Union there was a secret experiment to use an Escherichia coli to produce protein. And they succeed in this. There was only one problem. Yes, they can produce protein, but the smell was so terrible that nobody want to even to taste it.
FLATOW: Details, details.
Dr. MIRONOV: That's number one. Number two, yes, you can use also transgenic plants and they can produce one or maximum two proteins. The beauty of tissue engineering approach that you create authentic natural-like tissue which contain not just one protein, which you can use when you use transgenic plants. You can create complex protein. Complex protein which have very high nutritional value. That's what my collaborator Dewerth Maxim(ph) told me, from Dakota.
FLATOW: How - would you have to flavor it in any way or add artificial flavors or, you know, make it taste more like real meat that people are used to?
Dr. MIRONOV: If you look carefully, what is the tendency now in food industry, especially in the United States, and it's very well described in the book "Fast Food Nation." In New Jersey, there are 27 plants which produce so-called artificial flavor. Therefore, the question of flavors now is not the question of original product, it's a question of artificial flavors.
FLATOW: Would you think this meat would cost less than regular meat that we have now?
Dr. MIRONOV: If you look in the history of technology, you know, any high-tech product, in the beginning, especially at the initial stage, costs a lot of money because that's how much money you must invest in development of this technology, in development of building block. And if you look on microelectronics, for example, there is some interest in example which demonstrates that original product who have certain price but after marketing implementation and scalable technology implementation the price reduce 1,000 times.
FLATOW: Well, you know what, the price agriculture is...
Dr. MIRONOV: So, I believe just - to say that we can produce, right now, product with comparable price will be not realistic. But eventually, eventually I think it will be - maybe even cheaper than the recent technology.
FLATOW: Oh, with the price of oil going up near $120 a barrel and agriculture so energy-intensive, you may be right about that. I want to thank you for taking time to be with us today, Doctor.
Dr. MIRONOV: OK.
FLATOW: You're welcome.
Dr. MIRONOV: Thank you for having me.
FLATOW: Thank you for staying up so late there for us - across the globe. Vladimir Mironov is the associate professor in the Department of Cell Biology and Anatomy at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. And he was on the phone today from Singapore, which is a few time zones ahead of us. So as early in the morning hours, we'd like to thank him for being with us. We're going to take a short break, and come back and change direction once again about a story you heard about. We started it about a year ago. New information about soft tissue findings and a T. Rex dinosaur that - make sure that it's just, just as close to birds as we think it might be. So stay with us, we'll be right back.