He is also exploring bulking up the muscle cells. “If you take your cast off after a bone break, it scares you: the muscles are gone,” he says. “But within a couple of weeks they’re back. We need to replicate that process.” The body achieves this in several ways, including exercise. In a lab setting, scientists can stimulate the tissue with electrical pulses. But that is costly and inefficient, bulking up the cells by only about 10 percent. Another method is simply to provide anchor points: once the cells are able to attach to different anchors, they develop tension on their own. Post has made anchors available by providing a scaffold of sugar polymers, which degrades over time. But at this stage, he says, “We’re not looking at Schwarzenegger muscle cells.”
He has one more method in mind, one he thinks might work best. But it is also more complex. The body naturally stimulates muscle growth with tiny micropulses of chemicals such as acetylcholine. These chemicals are cheap, which is part of what makes this approach appealing. “The trick is to do it in very, very short pulses,” Post says. The hurdles to that are technological, not scientific.
Breakthroughs in all these areas will take money, of course. In 2008 People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) offered $1 million to the first person or persons who could grow commercially viable chicken in a lab by 2012. But that was mainly a publicity stunt and no help to scientists who need money to get research done now. More seriously, the Dutch government recently pledged roughly €800,000 toward a new four-year project that would continue the stem cell research at Utrecht—and also initiate a study on the social and moral questions related to in vitro meat.
The Ick Factor
Some see social acceptance as the biggest barrier of all to producing in vitro meat on a commercial scale. “I’ve mentioned cultured meat to scientists, and they all think, ‘great idea,’ ” says Oxford’s Tuomisto. “When I talk to nonscientists, they are more afraid of it. It sounds scary. Yet it’s basically the same stuff: muscle cells. It’s just produced differently.”
Cor van der Weele of Wageningen University is heading up the philosophical aspects of the new Dutch study (for example, is cultured meat a moral imperative or morally repugnant, or some combination of the two?). She has been intrigued by the emotional reactions that some people have toward the idea. “We call it the ‘yuck response,’ ” she says. “People initially think that it might be something contaminated or disgusting.”
But that perception can change quickly, van der Weele observes. She notes that people often associate cultured meat with two other ideas: genetically modified foods—which are often seen, particularly in Europe, as a dangerous corporate scheme to dominate or control the food supply—and negative perceptions of the meat industry in general, with its factory farms, disease and mistreatment of animals. Once people realize that cultured meat is not genetically modified and could be a clean, animal-friendly alternative to factory farms, she says, “the scared, very negative response is often very fleeting.”
Such observations are only anecdotal, of course. The study will assess popular responses to in vitro meat in detail—comparing reactions across different regions and cultures—and will determine ways to frame the issue that might enhance consumer interest. Proponents imagine a day when governments will levy special environmental taxes on meat produced from livestock or when consumers will be able to opt for in vitro meat that is labeled “cruelty-free.”
“I don’t think you want to know about the hygienic conditions in the majority of slaughterhouses in the U.S. or the efficiency of euthanasia,” says Post, who spent six years at Harvard University and Dartmouth College before returning home to the Netherlands in 2002. Another outbreak of disease—like mad cow or bird flu—could make cultured meat seem all the more appetizing. “We are far from what we eat,” Roelen says. “When we’re eating a hamburger, we don’t think, ‘I’m eating a dead cow.’ And when people are already so far from what they eat, it’s not too hard to see them accepting cultured meat.”