August 5, 2013 9:33:36 AM
LONDON -- For a hamburger that cost more than $300,000, you might expect fries and a shake too.
But this is no ordinary burger. At a public tasting in London today, scientists are prepared to serve up the first hamburger grown in a laboratory from stem cells of cattle.
Mark Post, whose team at Maastricht University in the Netherlands developed the burger after five years of research, hopes making meat in labs could eventually help solve the food crisis and fight climate change.
But Post says success doesn't hinge on science. "For the burger to succeed it has to look, feel and taste like the real thing," he said.
The burger, to be served to two volunteers, was made from cow muscle cells from two organic cows. The resulting patty will be seasoned with salt, egg powder, breadcrumbs, red beet juice and saffron.
Post and colleagues took muscle cells from a cow and put them into a nutrient solution to help them develop into muscle tissue. The muscle cells grew into small strands of meat, and it takes nearly 20,000 strands to make one 140 gram (5 ounce) burger.
The project cost $332,000.
"I'm a vegetarian but I would be first in line to try this," said Jonathan Garlick, a stem cell researcher at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine in Boston. He has used similar techniques to make human skin but wasn't involved in the burger research.
Experts say other ways of producing meat are needed to satisfy growing carnivorous appetites without exhausting resources. By 2050, the Food and Agriculture Organization predicts global meat consumption will double as more people in developing countries can afford it. Breeding animals destined for the dinner table takes up about 70 percent of all agricultural land.
The animal rights group PETA has thrown its support behind the lab-meat initiative.
"As long as there's anybody who's willing to kill a chicken, a cow or a pig to make their meal, we are all for this," said Ingrid Newkirk, PETA's president and co-founder.
"Instead of the millions and billions (of animals) being slaughtered now, we could just clone a few cells to make burgers or chops."
If the burger doesn't taste right, some scientists said the flavor can easily be tweaked.
"Taste is the least (important) problem since this could be controlled by letting some of the stem cells develop into fat cells," said Stig Omholt, director of biotechnology at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. Adding fat to the burgers this way would probably be healthier than getting it from naturally chunky cows, Omholt said.
Even if Monday's taste test is positive, it will probably be years before such burgers hit the market.
"The first (lab-made) meat products are going to be very exclusive," said Isha Datar, director of New Harvest, an international non-profit that promotes meat alternatives. "These burgers won't be in Happy Meals before someone rich and famous is eating it."
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