In Jeffrey Bartholet’s intriguing article for Scientific American, Bartholet, a veteran foreign correspondent and former Washington bureau chief for Newsweek magazine, explains how in vitro meat is the brainchild of Willem van Eelen, 87, who fought the Japanese in World War II and spent several years in prisoner-of-war camps working as a laborer.
The Japanese starved the prisoners, and the experience caused van Eelen to develop a lifelong obsession with food and survival.
Willem van Eelen when on to study medicine at the University of Amsterdam, where a professor showed students how to get a piece of muscle tissue to grow in the laboratory.
According to Bartholet, van Eelen, together with two partners, won a Dutch patent in 1999, and eventually two U.S. patents. In 2005 he convinced the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs to pledge €2 million to support in vitro meat research in the Netherlands.
In theory, explains Bartholet, 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.”
But there are challenges at every stage of this process, and funding is an issue. The Dutch government recently pledged roughly €800,000 toward a new four-year project that would continue the stem cell research at Utrecht University in the Netherlands.
Mark Post, professor of physiology at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, spent six years at Harvard University and Dartmouth College before returning to the Netherlands in 2002.
To attract new funding, Post plans 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.
Post says it’s basically a stunt to generate more funds.
“We’ll take two or three biopsies of a pig — say, 10,000 stem cells,” says Post.
“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.”
Bernard Roelen, a molecular biologist, has faith that Post’s creation will actually taste like a sausage. “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.”