Last week a strange concoction of Google co-founder Sergei Brin’s $330,000, cow muscle stem cells and some hardworking team of scientists from Maastricht University resulted in the world’s first in vitro burger, served up to an eager audience of taste-testers. Declared to have a “mouthfeel” like real meat but lacking the deliciousness of fat, the burger showed, as National Public Radio stated, that someday we very well may be able to produce large quantities of meat from very few animals, encouraging news to those worried about the environmental and animal welfare costs of industrial meat production.
Public reactions to this so-called “cultured beef” ranged from praise to repulsion. Some criticized the resource-intensive techniques required to produce the in vitro burger, while others suggested that anyone grossed out by lab meat should visit their local slaughterhouse. Some questioned the ethics of cultured beef, which avoids animal slaughter but still requires animal inputs; the burger cells were grown in a medium supplemented with the blood of unborn cows. Scientists acknowledge these and other concerns, including whether cultured beef can be mass-produced at a price and flavor consumers will accept.
While I will happily continue noshing on beef and veggie burgers, I’m fascinated by the greater ramifications of the science that turned out cultured beef. In July, Japanese scientists reported they had grown a primitive liver in a petri dish using a person’s skin cells. In 2011, a man with advanced tracheal cancer received a completely artificial windpipe grown from his own stem cells, ensuring his body wouldn’t reject the transplant.
Whether it’s burgers or new organs, these developments represent strange – and wonderful – new worlds in science. What scientific advancements do you find most useful? Most alarming?