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September 6, 2013

PETERS: Hamburger grown in a laboratory

It sounds like science fiction when you first hear about it, but some people see it as a way of addressing both animal welfare issues and environmental concerns. I’m talking about growing meat cells for human consumption from stem cells harvested from a cow. This so-called “cultured beef” recently was unveiled in London by a group led by Mark Post, a physiologist at the Netherland’s Maastricht University.

It’s been known for a while that an anonymous donor contributed money toward an effort to grow a hamburger patty in a laboratory. That donor is now unmasked as Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google.

“Sometimes a new technology comes along and it has the capability to transform how we view the world,” Brin said as quoted by National Public Radio.

Industrial meat production in feedlots puts demands on the environment. Creating meat in a lab could, at least in theory, decrease the environmental cost of creating protein for the world’s increasing population.

“Our current meat production is at a maximum and it’s not going to be sustainable,” Post said to reporters. “We need to come up with an alternative.”

After three months of work, Post and his colleagues had a patty to unveil to two tasters and invited guests – mostly journalists.

The hamburger started life as stem cells in a cow’s shoulder. The cells were separated from others and grown in a medium that had antibiotics to prevent the flourishing of bacteria. As time unfolded, the cells grew and divided. Using some “scaffolding” provided to them, the cells organized themselves into muscle fibers. All told, about 20,000 muscle fibers went into the hamburger patty.

It should be obvious the lab-grown burger is real meat. It’s not a soy-based burger or anything a vegetarian could eat. But because it has no blood cells in it, the burger would naturally be quite light colored. As reported by Business Insider, to compensate for the color the burger’s makers added saffron and beet juice to make the hamburger more red.

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