Because of bird flu I probably spend too much time thinking about the world’s industrially produced poultry. Arguably these chicken factories, with tens of thousands of birds crammed together under the most unsanitary conditions are the perfect bioreactor for virulent bird viruses, like influenza A/H5N1. They exit because chicken meat is a good source of relatively low cost protein and global appetite for Chicken McNuggets and its culinary cousins. So I guess we have to live with this vile industry. Or do we?
About a year and half ago I posted on growing meat in tissue culture. It got a very chilly reception from readers but I continue to be fascinated by the idea. It would solve a lot of problems: inhumane treatment of animals, promotion of antibiotic resistance, foodborne diseases like Salmonella, inefficient use of energy to produce protein, destruction of rain forests for agricultural purposes, heart unhealthy ingredients, etc., etc. It’s a long list. On the negative side, there’s, well, not that much. One big negative is putting food production in the hands of multinationals and big biotech companies. But they already have their greedy hands on the food spigot. And why couldn’t meat be produced in backyard or kitchen bioreactors? Better than an infected chicken running around the house.
The idea is pretty simple although carrying it out seems to be difficult. We already grow cells in tissue culture in bottles or vats where cells are bathed by nutrient and multiply by binary fission. Influenza virus is grown by inoculating such a tissue culture with a clinical specimen. Instead of using the cells as a culture medium we could grow muscle cells from, say a pig or a chicken, harvesting the resulting meat cells, in principle the same tissue as from a dead animal.
In principle. But there seem to be some pretty tough problems to solve. The two biggest, as far as I can see from a quick perusal of the burgeoning literature, are finding a suitable nutrient to grow the cells in; and then growing tissue that has the proper texture for being a meat substitute. Animal meat is not just muscle cells but a complicated structure also containing connective tissue, blood and blood vessels, nerves and fat. Just growing up masses of identical cells isn’t sufficient. You have to reproduce an architecture.
There seem to be quite a few groups working on various aspects of the cultured meat problem but nothing appears to be close to market. When the first stuff hits the food store shelves it will probably be in the form of processed meats like sausages, hot dogs and boneless chicken breasts or nuggets. The idea of growing a sirloin steak seems a long way off. But who knows? Maybe these enthusiasts will find a rich steakholder (sorry).
If you are interested in the subject, there is a non-profit research consortium working on meat substitutes, including cultured meat. At its website you can read their pitch and find links to some popular and technical articles on the subject.