Scientists Grow Meat in the Lab

ByAmanda Onion

March 27, 2002 -- For astronauts who might tire of squeeze tube food and sweet potato cereal, researchers are developing ways to grow meat in a tank.

"Most people I know aren't content with nothing but vegetables," said Morris Benjaminson, a researcher at Touro College Applied Bioscience Research Consortium in Bay Shore, N.Y. "They like meat and they like meat to taste good. So I came up with the idea of raising muscle in a growth chamber."

Benjaminson and his team managed to make slices of fish muscle grow bigger in a nutrient solution. Soon he hopes to try the technique to grow chicken and beef.

One of the challenges in launching a possible manned mission to Mars will be in supplying the travelers with an adequate and diverse supply of food for the estimated two-year voyage. Packing all food supplies will be impractical since NASA estimates it now costs about $10,000 a pound to send material into low Earth orbit and many times that to send any kind of material to Mars.

That means astronauts will need to grow much of their food — including, perhaps, their meat.

Slice, Plant, Grow

In a NASA-funded project, Benjaminson sliced 2-4-inch sections of flesh from large goldfish and placed them in a nutrient solution of fetal bovine serum, a liquid extracted from the blood of unborn calves. After a few weeks in the solution, Benjaminson said the fish meat grew by up to 16 percent. The results were first reported in New Scientist magazine.

To test the lab-grown meat's appeal, his team showed it to colleagues to analyze for color and fried the meat to assess its aroma. Benjaminson said most considered the fish meat appetizing, although no one actually tasted it since he hasn't won approval from the Food and Drug Administration.

Benjaminson, himself, restrained from eating it since he was wary of possible infectious agents from the fetal bovine serum used to grow it.

"I'm just as careful about prions as the next man," he said, referring to the infectious proteins behind mad cow disease.

To avoid possible infection and the "yuck" factor of using bovine serum, Benjaminson's team scouted out other nutrient materials for feeding flesh. They found extracts from shitake mushrooms and fishmeal also work to make fish flesh grow.

Meat Machines

Eventually, Benjaminson hopes to improve the growth rate of his homegrown fish sticks and expand the technique for growing chicken and beef. The team also hopes to create a meat-growing machine to automate the process by pumping in the right amount of oxygen, pumping out carbon dioxide and cellular wastes and continually "feeding" the meat with fresh nutrient solution.

"When someone wants some meat they can cut a piece off, wash it off and cook it," he said. "Then the initial cells will keep growing."

He says the method beats the prospect of breeding live animals for food — an idea that German researchers proposed last year when they designed an artificial ecosystem for hosting fish in a spacecraft. Unlike a fish tank, a meat-growing machine would produce far less waste, which would be difficult to discard in an enclosed spaceship.

But growing meat in space has some serious drawbacks to consider.

William Knott, the chief of biological programs at NASA's Kennedy Space Center points out that, unlike tending a garden of vegetables, growing meat will consume critical resources that the astronauts need themselves, namely oxygen and carbon.

"The problem is the meat would compete with the astronauts' needs," Knott said. For that reason Knott suspects the first Mars travelers will subsist primarily on a vegetarian diet. Knott has been overseeing projects to optimize vegetables like lettuce, tomatoes, sweet and white potatoes that can grow fast and produce a mostly edible plant.

Still, Knott concedes that a vegetable-only diet won't cut it in the long run.

"You're not going to have only vegetarians in space or on Mars," he said. "You'll need meat, but it just means you'll have to do the numbers and calculate how much you have to put in to make it worthwhile."

Terrestrial Applications

Benjaminson is hoping his meat-growing technique might also find applications on Earth. For example, he wonders if some vegetarians be willing to eat meat products that were not directly slaughtered.

"I think it would have something to do with how far removed the tissue is from the original animal," he said.

Meat-making units might also be helpful in isolated places where raising animals is difficult to impossible. Think military submarines, for example, or the South Pole or remote desert stations.

Benjaminson says he has already heard from executives at a poultry company in England who expressed interest in using the technique to grow boneless chicken products. But first his team needs to speed up the growth rate of the lab met and learn how to move from fish to chicken.

"There are a lot of obstacles left," he said. "This is just the beginning."

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