Editor's note: This article appears in print with the title "Inside the Meat Lab."

It is not unusual for visionaries to be impassioned, if not fanatical­, and Willem van Eelen is no exception. At 87, van Eelen can look back on an extraordinary life. He was born in Indonesia when it was under Dutch control, the son of a doctor who ran a leper colony. As a teenager, he fought the Japanese in World War II and spent several years in prisoner-of-war camps. The Japanese guards used prisoners as slave labor and starved them. “If one of the stray dogs was stupid enough to go over the wire, the prisoners would jump on it, tear it apart and eat it raw,” van Eelen recalls. “If you looked at my stomach then, you saw my spine. I was already dead.” The experience triggered a lifelong obsession with food, nutrition and the science of survival.

One obsession led to another. After the Allies liberated Indonesia, van Eelen studied medicine at the University of Amsterdam. A professor showed the students how he had been able to get a piece of muscle tissue to grow in the laboratory. This demonstration inspired van Eelen to consider the possibility of growing edible meat without having to raise or slaughter animals. Imagine, he thought, protein-rich food that could be grown like crops, no matter what the climate or other environmental conditions, without killing any living creatures.

If anything, the idea is more potent now. The world population was just more than two billion in 1940, and global warming was not a concern. Today the planet is home to three times as many people. According to a 2006 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization, the livestock business accounts for about 18 percent of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions—an even larger contribution than the global transportation sector. The organization expects worldwide meat consumption to nearly double between 2002 and 2050.

Meat grown in bioreactors—instead of raised on farms—could help alleviate planetary stress. Hanna Tuomisto, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Ox­ford, co-authored a study last year on the potential environmental impacts of cultured meat. The study found that such production, if scientists grew the muscle cells in a culture of cyanobacteria hydrolysate (a bacterium cultivated in ponds), would involve “approximately 35 to 60 percent lower energy use, 80 to 95 percent lower greenhouse gas emissions and 98 percent lower land use compared to conventionally produced meat products in Europe.”

As it is, 30 percent of the earth’s ice-free land is used for grazing livestock and growing animal feed. If cultured meat were to become viable and widely consumed, much of that land could be used for other purposes, including new forests that would pull carbon out of the air. Meat would no longer have to be shipped around the globe, because production sites could be located close to consumers. Some proponents imagine small urban meat labs selling their products at street markets that cater to locavores.

The Only Choice Left
Even Winston Churchill thought in vitro meat was a good idea. “Fifty years hence, we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing by growing these parts separately under suitable medium,” he predicted in a 1932 book, Thoughts and Adventures. For most of the 20th century, however, few took the idea seriously. Van Eelen did not let it go. He worked all kinds of jobs—selling newspapers, driving a taxi, making dollhouses. He established an organization to help underprivileged kids and owned art galleries and cafes. He wrote proposals for in vitro meat production and eventually plowed much of his earnings into applying for patents. Together with two partners, he won a Dutch patent in 1999, then other European patents and, eventually, two U.S. patents. In 2005 he and others finally convinced the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs to pledge €2 million to support in vitro meat research in the Netherlands—the largest government grant for such research to date.

By that time, an American scientist had already succeeded in growing a piece of fish filet in a lab. Using a small grant from NASA, which was interested in developing food sources for deep-space voyages, Morris Benjaminson removed skeletal muscle from a common goldfish and grew it outside the fish’s body. Then an associate briefly marinated the explants in olive oil, chopped garlic, lemon and pepper, covered them in bread crumbs and deep-fried them. “A panel of female colleagues gave it a visual and sniff test,” says Benjaminson, now an emeritus professor at Touro College in Bay Shore, N.Y. “It looked and smelled pretty much the same as any fish you could buy at the supermarket.” But NASA, apparently convinced there were easier ways to provide protein to astronauts on long deep-space voyages, declined to further fund Benjaminson’s research.

The Dutch money was used by van Eelen and H. P. Haagsman, a scientist at Utrecht University, to fund a consortium that would aim to show that stem cells could be taken from farm animals, cultured and induced to become skeletal muscle cells. The team included a representative from meat company Meester Stegeman BV, then part of Sara Lee Corporation in Europe, and top scientists at three Dutch universities. Each university studied different aspects of in vitro meat production. Scientists at the University of Amsterdam focused on producing efficient growth media; a group at Utrecht worked on isolating stem cells, making them proliferate and coaxing them into muscle cells; and those at Eindhoven University of Technology attempted to “train” the muscle cells to grow larger.

The scientists made some progress. They were able to grow small, thin strips of muscle tissue in the lab—stuff that looked like bits of scallop and had the chewy texture of calamari—but several obstacles remained to commercial-scale production. “We gained knowledge; we knew a lot more, but we still didn’t have [something that tasted like] a T-bone steak that came from a petri dish,” says Peter Verstrate, who represented Meester Stegeman in the consortium and now works as a consultant. In time, the Dutch money ran out.

Van Eelen now fumes that one scientist involved was “stupid” and others just milked him and the Dutch government for money. “I don’t know what they did in four years—talking, talking, talking—every year taking more of the money,” he says. For their part, the scientists say that van Eelen never understood the scale of the challenge. “He had a naive idea that you could put muscle cells in a petri dish and they would just grow, and if you put money into a project, you’d have meat in a couple of years,” says Bernard Roelen, a cell biologist who worked on the project at Utrecht.

Van Eelen was not the only one who imagined a revolution. In 2005 an article in the New York Times concluded that “in a few years’ time there may be a lab-grown meat ready to market as sausages or patties.” A couple of months before the story appeared, researchers had published the first peer-reviewed article on cultured meat in the journal Tissue Engineering.* The authors included Jason G. Matheny, co-founder of the lab-produced meat advocacy group New Harvest. He understands the challenges better than most. “Tissue engineering is really hard and extremely expensive right now,” he says. “To enjoy market adoption, we mainly need to solve the technical problems that increase the cost of engineered meat.” That will take money, he notes, and few governments or organizations have been willing to commit necessary funding.

*Clarification (5/19/11): The sentence refers to the paper as the first peer-reviewed article on cultured meat; the paper is the first peer-reviewed article on the prospects for industrial production of cultured meat.

To the scientists involved, that failure seems shortsighted. “I think [in vitro meat] will be the only choice left,” says Mark J. Post, head of the physiology department at Maastricht University. “I’m very bold about this. I don’t see any way you could still rely on old-fashioned livestock in the coming decades.”

Assembly Required

In theory, an in vitro meat factory would work something like this: First, technicians would isolate embryonic or adult stem cells from a pig, cow, chicken or other animal. Then they would grow those cells in bioreactors, using a culture derived from plants. The stem cells would divide and redivide for months on end. Technicians would next instruct the cells to differentiate into muscle (rather than, say, bone or brain cells). Finally, the muscle cells would need to be “bulked up” in a fashion similar to the way in which animals build their strength by exercising.

For now there are challenges at every stage of this process. One difficulty is developing stem cell lines that can proliferate for long periods without suddenly deciding they want to differentiate on their own. Another challenge is to be sure that when stem cells are prompted to differentiate, the overwhelming majority of them turn into muscle as instructed. “If 10 cells differentiate, you want at least seven or eight to turn into muscle cells, not three or four,” Roelen says. “We can achieve 50 percent now.”

The Utrecht scientists tried to extract and develop embryonic stem cell lines from pigs. Such cells would, in normal conditions, be able to duplicate every day for long periods, meaning 10 cells could grow into a staggering amount of potential meat in just two months—more than 50,000 metric tons. “Culturing embryonic stem cells would be ideal for this purpose since these cells have an (almost) infinite self-renewal capacity,” according to a 2009 report by the Utrecht team. “In theory, one such cell line would be sufficient to literally feed the world.”

Until now, however, such cell lines have been developed only from mice, rats, rhesus monkeys and humans. Embryonic cells from farm animals have had a tendency to differentiate quickly—and of their own accord—into specialized cells. In the report, Utrecht team’s porcine cells often veered toward “a neural lineage”—brains, not bacon.

The Utrecht group also worked with adult stem cells, which have the advantage of being largely preprogrammed. These cells exist within skeletal muscle (as well as other parts of the body) with a specific mission: to do repair work when tissue is injured or dies off. So if you are making in vitro meat and want stem cells that will almost surely turn into muscle tissue, adult stem cells from skeletal muscle tissue should work very well. Until now, however, scientists have not been able to get these cells to proliferate as readily as they can embryonic cells.

Cost is another barrier. The culture used to grow stem cells of any kind is very expensive. With currently available media, it might cost $50,000 to produce a pound of meat, according to Roelen, and the most efficient nutrient bath is derived from fetal calf or horse serum taken from slaughtered animals. In recent years scientists have developed their own recipes for “chemically defined media” that include no animal products. By using recombinant-DNA technology, they have also been able to get plant cells to produce animal proteins that could be used to grow the meat. But both these types of media are, for now, prohibitively expensive. An algae-based medium may eventually work best because algae can produce the proteins and amino acids necessary to sustain cell life, but that, too, is costly—at least for now.

Once the researchers get a big supply of muscle cells, they will need to keep them alive and bulk them up. It is possible now to engineer a thin strip of tissue, but if it gets thicker than a few cell layers, parts of it start to die off. The cells need a constant flow of fresh nutrients to stay alive. In the body, these nutrients are delivered by the bloodstream, which also removes waste. Post is working on how to develop a three-dimensional system that delivers such nutrients.

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.”

Post has a bold scheme to attract new funding: he aims to create an in vitro sausage just to demonstrate that it is possible. He estimates that it will cost €300,000 and take six months of work by two doctoral students using three incubators. “We’ll take two or three biopsies of a pig—say, 10,000 stem cells,” Post says. “After 20 population doublings, we’ll have 10 billion cells.” The students will use 3,000 petri dishes to produce many tiny bits of porcine muscle tissue, which then will be packed into a casing with some spices and other nonmeat ingredients to give it taste and texture. In the end, scientists will be able to display the sausage next to the living pig from which it was grown.

“It’s basically a stunt to generate more funds,” Post says. “We’re trying to prove to the world we can make a product out of this.” But will it taste like a sausage? “I think so,” Roelen says. “Most of the taste in a chicken nugget or a sausage is artificially made. Salt and all kinds of other things are added to give it taste.”

Van Eelen, who regards himself as “the godfather of in vitro meat,” is not a fan of the sausage proposal. He is a diehard idealist and thinks it is important to launch the in vitro revolution with meat that looks, smells and tastes just like anything you would buy off the farm. Van Eelen probably also realizes that time is running out to realize a dream that he has pursued nearly his entire life. “Every time you talk to him, he’s speaking about someone else he’s found who will be the top scientist who will solve his problems,” Roelen says. “I can understand his point of view. But I can’t change the laws of the universe.”