Monday, August 15, 2005

Researchers are dishing up the perfect conundrum for vegetarians — meat grown in a laboratory dish, not on the hoof.

While it may be years before laboratory-raised meat hits your store shelf, researchers say the technology exists now to produce processed meats such as burgers and sausages, starting with cells taken from a cow, chicken, pig, fish or other animal.

Growing meat without the animal would have a number of advantages. It would reduce the need for the animals — which often are raised in less than ideal conditions. Meat production is also blamed for a variety of environmental ills. And cultured meat also could be tailored to be healthier than farm-raised meat, while satisfying the increasing demand for protein by the world’s growing population, proponents say.

Brian J. Ford, a British biologist and the author of “The Future of Food,” said the widespread acceptance of meat substitutes such as “quorn,” a cultured fungus, “shows that the time for cultured tissue is near.”

Techniques for engineering muscle cells and other tissues were first developed for medical use. Now a handful of researchers are looking into growing edible muscle cells, said Jason Matheny, a University of Maryland doctoral student who co-authored a paper on in-vitro meat techniques.

Industrializing the process could involve growing muscle cells on large sheets or beads suspended in a growth medium. The sheet would have to be stretched, or the beads would have to be able to expand, to stretch the cells and provide the exercise needed for the cells to develop, he said.

“If you didn’t stretch them, you would be eating mush. It would be like pink-colored Jell-O,” Mr. Matheny said.

Once the cells have grown enough, they could be scraped off and packaged. If edible sheets or beads are used, all of it could be eaten.

“The technology is there to produce something like a processed meat; you could produce a heavily processed chicken meat just like, perhaps, a nugget,” Mr. Matheny said.

“The technology to produce something like a steak or chicken breast is still quite a ways off, there’s a lot of technological challenge to producing something that has a structure to it.”

Growing a steak, for example, requires more than just muscle cells. Blood vessels, fat and connective tissue would also have to be grown. If too many muscle cells grow on top of each other, for example, the cells on the inside of the muscle mass will no longer be exposed to the nutrients in the growth medium and will die, Mr. Matheny said.

In June, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said they had taken a step toward solving that problem.

The researchers, studying the creation of replacement parts for humans, said they used a mix of cells to grow muscle tissue that had its own blood vessels.

The human tissue was implanted into mice where they watched blood flow into the engineered muscle.

Touro College bio-engineer Morris Benjaminson said fish-muscle cells cultured at his laboratory for NASA passed a “sniff panel,” and he thinks seafood might be the first to be laboratory cultured.

“We actually did cook the fish meat we grew,” Mr. Benjaminson said. “It looked, according to them, and smelled like the fish you can buy in the supermarket.”

However, the panel did not eat the cultured meat, he said.

While growing meat in a dish now is too expensive for anything but space travel, Mr. Benjaminson thinks it is feasible to one day produce a cheaper, tastier, fishless-stick.

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