A research team has simultaneously engineered both muscle tissue and fat from sampled cattle cells, an achievement that could eventually bring higher quality cultured meat to dinner tables.
As people are becoming more and more aware of the negative environmental and ethical problems associated with meat consumption, the alternative meat industry is booming. Veggie burgers have become commonplace in many places, and meat alternatives are only becoming more and more diversified. Until now, these alternatives only mimicked the properties of meat. But soon, meat alternatives could be actually meat.
Lab-grown meat, meat grown from animal cells without actually killing animals, is not only more ethical, but perhaps also more environmentally friendly, producing less CO2 emissions and using less water and soil than traditional meat productin. Since the industry is just starting out, we don’t know exactly how eco-friendly it would be, but there are already reasons for optimism.
“The current process of meat production using livestock has significant effects on the global environment, including high emissions of greenhouse gases. In recent years, cultured meat has attracted attention as a way to acquire animal proteins,” write the authors of a new study.
Whether or not the lab-grown meat industry will succeed, though, will likely depend on two things: price and taste/texture.
The price is already looking pretty decent. Although it’s not quite at the same price as regular meat, lab-grown meat has gone from $325,000 a burger in 2013 to around $10 in 2020. In Singapore, the only place that has currently regulated lab-grown meat and is selling it so far, a serving of chicken nuggets goes for $23 — it’s still expensive, but not extremely far away from parity, and as production scales and matures, cost will undoubtedly continue to go down.
Which leaves us with how the meat actually tastes. Part of what makes lab-grown meat so attractive (other than the fact that it’s better for animals and the environment) is that you can grow any type of meat. Sure, $10 for a burger or a steak sounds like a lot, but you don’t have to grow regular steaks, you can grow luxury, expensive steaks. For instance, wagyu steaks can cost up to $200 per pound and by comparison, $10 doesn’t sound as bad. But to engineer different types of meat, researchers need to be able to not just produce meat, but also produce the fat around it. Now, researchers working in Japan have found a way to produce both muscle tissue and fat from sampled cattle cells, which could enable scientists to engineer higher-quality meat.
For most of the lab-grown meat, muscle cells are cultivated to produce fibers, while the fat is injected afterward to resemble the “real” thing. However, with the new approach, muscle and fat can be grown at the same time, using cells from an animal’s skeletal muscle. This type of cell is easy to grow, the researchers explain.
Currently, researchers can use small chunks of meat, 0.5 millimeters in diameter, to grow pieces of up to 1.5 centimeters in diameter — not enough for a full-grown steak, but this is still just the first study describing the method. It takes around 21 days for beef to be grown using this method.
What makes this even more exciting is that different types of oil and fat can be added into the product this way, making the resulting lab-grown meat healthier and richer in nutritional supplements.
It’s still early days, but this type of study shows just how quickly the field of lab-grown meat can progress. It went from little more than a pipe dream ten years ago to already becoming a reality in 2021 — in several countries, including the US and Israel, the factories are already ready, it’s just the regulatory approval that’s lacking. So, would you go for a lab-grown steak?
The study “Isolation and Characterization of Tissue Resident CD29-Positive Progenitor Cells in Livestock to Generate a Three-Dimensional Meat Bud” has been published in the journal Cells.