Can a steak truly be vegetarian or even vegan? And no, I am not talking about tofu, soy flour or seitan. What I am posing in this article is the possibility to produce real meat without animal sacrifice.
This idea has been discussed in the media for a long time; the possibility and benefits of combining cell culture and food biotechnology. However, it most commonly relates to plant based developments. Besides, not so long ago, a research group was able to produce edible meat from a cell culture plate; so it is possible to produce on an industrial scale?
Cell culture is defined as the process to grow cells under controlled conditions on a plate. It is one of the major tools used in cellular and molecular biology, providing excellent model systems for studying the normal physiology and biochemistry of cells, the effects drugs and toxic compounds have on organic compounds, as well as mutagenesis and carcinogenesis. It is also used in drug screening and development, and large-scale manufacturing of biological compounds. In this context, the major advantage of using cell culture for any of these applications is the consistency and replication of results which can be obtained from using a batch of clonal cells.
Besides the potential at the academic level, these systems were not applied to meat production until 2013, when Mark Post of the University of Maastricht unveiled the world’s first cultured beef burger, assembled in his lab from thousands of individual strands of muscle tissue.
Despite these findings, it also presented a range of difficulties. The main one being in order to perform this kind of procedure, the initial samples combine fat tissue and muscular fibres. So to be able to transform fat into muscular fibres, steroids are required in the cell culture structure. The main problem with this procedure is that nowadays it is completely forbidden to use steroids for edible purposes.
Another crucial problem to be able to produce vegetarian meat is to eliminate the use of any animal products, besides the initial cells from the samples of course. Nowadays, in laboratories, cells are often grown using a fetal bovine serum extracted from unborn calves. So from a vegetarian point of view, using a baby cow to grow a burger is less than ideal.
Another difficulty which must be overcome is the transfer from laboratory petri dishes to industrial scale production. In particular, the main problem is the oxygen circulation within the cells, and without a blood vessel formation, the cells are not able to grow more than thin sheets of meat. To avoid this problem, some solutions have been proposed such as the 3D printing or the use of new materials which improved cell structures.
Finally, another crucial point in producing efficient red meat culturing facilities is the impeccable cleanliness required. Keeping everything sterile is essential when working in a cell culture lab, and most importantly to be located near to a bioreactor. That, no doubt, will up the maintenance costs, but it is a worthy step. That is because, if the sterile conditions can be ensured, it might be able to remove antibiotics from the equation, which are common at any cell culturing process.
So, it’s fair to say there are still lots of challenges to overcome to be able to translate a laboratory scale meat production, into an efficient industrial culturing process. However, the benefits are potentially huge: from being able to provide meat to vegetarians and vegans, to reducing the greenhouse gas emissions related to farming production, whilst enhancing a more sustainable future.
More on the same subject: