Researchers in the Netherlands say they've successfully grown a real hamburger in a laboratory and served it up in a pan for the first time today. The burger is being pitched as the first step toward a future without factory farms and slaughterhouses, even though the initial prototype costs more than $300,000 to produce.
The team from Maastricht University says they crafted the beef patty from the stem cells of real cows, taking muscle tissue from a cow's shoulder, transferring the cells to a petri dish and helping re-grow into more muscle tissue. The end result is actual meat, but it's still not quite the same thing as a real beef patty, judging by the reaction of the panel chosen to take it for a test drive.
The researchers chose to show off their project in an odd press conference-infomercial hybrid, streamed online, complete with an attractive host and a chef cooking the burger up live in front of the cameras. The volunteer tasters said it was good to eat and a close approximation of a real hamburger, but is still missing some of the qualities of a true burger. One of tasters, an Austrian nutritionist, said that in a blind taste test she should be able to tell the difference, but it's still "very close to meat."
The scientists says that flavor is always easy to duplicate and biologically there's no difference between real muscle and animal tissue grown in lab. But things like texture, consistency, and "mouth feel" are harder to replicate. One of the biggest problems is the absence of fat, which is found in all meats in some quantity or another, but the two can't be grown together in the lab they way they would be in a living animal.
Since global meat consumption is expected to double in the next 30 or years or so, the researchers are holding out hope that this could be a solution to both food shortages and the environmental hazards of growing meat on such a large scale. It will take many more years of experimenting to perfect the technology and (eventually) apply it to other animals and other cuts of beef. The cost is obviously still prohibitive at the moment too — 250,000 euros produced one five-ounce burger — but that problem seems to have a solution as well. It was revealed at the press conference tasting that the money for the project was provided Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google, and we all know there's a lot more beef money where that came from.