Feb. 19, 2012 at 5:11 PM ET
The quest to grow meat in a lab rather than on an animal is due to reach its climax this fall, with the first-ever culture-dish hamburger served to a celebrity taster after a $330,000 development effort.
Mark Post, a physiologist at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands, said the project is being funded by an anonymous investor who is interested in "life-transforming technologies" and believes lab-grown meat could revolutionize the food industry.
"It's a reputable source of money, I can tell you," Post said today in Vancouver, Canada, at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Post hopes the tasting will be a media event, with experimental chef Heston Blumenthal cooking the burger. The patty will be much like a regular quarter-pounder — but with one big difference: This one will be created by growing bovine stem cells in a vat, transforming them into thousands of thin layers of beef muscle cells, mincing them into tiny pieces, then combining the bits with lab-grown animal fat to form a lump of meat the size of a golf ball.
If Post and his colleagues succeed, it would mark a technological triumph after years of working to improve upon the current, millennia-old method for making meat. Researchers in the field say the livestock industry in its current incarnation is too energy-intensive and land-intensive for a global population that's rising in numbers and affluence.
Meat production already takes up more than half of the world's estimated agricultural capacity, in one way or another. U.N. figures show that animal farming takes up 30 percent of the planet's exposed land mass. And over the next 40 years, the demand for meat products is expected to double.
If the researchers' assumptions are correct, growing meat in the lab "could reduce the energy expenditure by about 40 percent," Post said. Lab-grown meat has also won the endorsement of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, because the stem cells could be extracted without killing animals.
The money behind the meat
Post has been talking about serving up the first lab-grown burger for a long time, but it took the anonymous 250,000-euro ($330,000) contribution to turn the dream into reality. Traditional meat producers weren't interested in changing their ways, and were doubtful about success, he said. "Most people don't believe it's ever going to happen," he told reporters.
When Post started working on the project, he focused on growing stem cells from pigs to create a lab-grown sausage, but he said "my financier was not very interested in sausages."
There's still a long way to go between now and the celebrity cookout: Post said he doesn't yet know what the burger would taste like, because the samples that have been grown so far are too small. The pinkish-yellowish strips of muscle cells are only about an inch (3 centimeters) long, a half-inch (1.5 centimeter) wide, and so thin (1 millimeter) that they're semi-transparent. Post feels confident that his team can perfect the process by October, but full commercialization could take another 10 years or more.
The good news is that if there's someone out there willing to buy the second lab-grown hamburger, they can get it for "an extreme reduction in price," Post told me. He estimates that piece of meat should cost just 200,000 euros ($263,000).
It's worth asking whether the quest to grow lab-grown meat is worth the effort, considering that there are already vegetarian alternatives to meat. Aren't tofurky and field roast good enough? Post and others note that such products haven't made a significant dent in the meat market, and are generally more expensive than the meat items they're meant to replace.
"If there is a vegetable-derived product that can take away the human being's craving for meat, that would be preferable," Post said.
Stanford University biochemist Patrick Brown says he's working on precisely that kind of stuff, and it could be on the market in the next year or so.
"We have a class of products that just totally rocks and cannot be distinguished from the animal-based product it replaces, even by hardcore foodies," he said. He promised that his plant-based alternatives to meat and dairy products would be tasty, nutritious — and profitable.
"I think it's going to be one of the easier things I've done," he said.
Brown joked that he couldn't talk about the details, "because if I did, I'd have to kill you." He'd say only that he "had no trouble getting investment" from a Silicon Valley venture-capital firm. To commercialize the concept, two ventures have been set up with placeholder names: Sand Hill Foods and Jasper Ridge Creamery.
The way Brown sees it, the meat industry is a "sitting duck for disruptive technology," offering a rich target for alternatives. He said the wholesale market for unprocessed meat has been estimated at $150 billion a year, which is 250 times the current market for meat alternatives.
Even though Post said the meat industry has been generally standoffish about lab alternatives, some companies are going against the grain: Nicholas Genovese, a visiting scholar at the University of Missouri at Columbia, told journalists that JBS, one of the world's biggest meat-packing companies, was interested in his parallel effort to grow meat in the lab.
More about the future of food:
More from the AAAS meeting in Vancouver:
Last updated 7 p.m. ET.
Alan Boyle is science editor for msnbc.com. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter or adding the Cosmic Log Google+ page to your circles. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.