January 13, 2007

Embryonic Steak Cells

Hatched by Dafydd

Here's a juicy post...

The whole point of stem cells (embryonic, placental, uterine, or adult) is that they can be made to grow into any kind of cellular tissue needed; and you needn't grow the entire organism in order to produce, say, pancreatic tissue, liver cells, or neurons. Or, for that matter, muscle tissue, grown from a "myoblast" stem cell... which brings up a very interesting scenario.

What is another name for the muscle tissue of a steer, a castrated male bovine? Try ribeye steak, or T-bone, or rump roast. Another name for the muscle tissue of a pig is pork roast or bacon or sausage.

All right, you're way ahead of me; but the scientists are way ahead of us both, because I didn't even think about this until I read this article: biological researchers in the United States and the Netherlands have been experimenting in growing meat directly from animal stem cells, without having to grow the entire pig or steer:

In different parts of the world, rival research teams are racing to produce meat using cell-culture technology. Several patents have been filed. Scientists at Nasa has been experimenting since 2001 and the Dutch Government is sponsoring a $4 million (£2 million) project to cultivate pork meat.

The idea may be stomach-turning, but the science for making pork in a Petri dish already exists.

(Actually, they use adult animal stem cells; I just liked the sound of "embryonic" in the title... drags a little ersatz controversy into the post.)

I accept that some people's stomachs may be upset by the thought, but I don't understand why. In fact, this would be a Godsend to billions of starving people all over the world. Not to mention millions of religious vegetarians, as they could start eating meat without making even a single animal suffer!

Put simply, the process relies on a muscle precursor cell known as a myoblast, a sort of stem cell preprogrammed to grow into muscle. This cell is extracted from a living animal, and encouraged to multiply in a nutritional broth of glucose, amino acids, minerals and growth factors -- [Winston] Churchill’s “suitable medium” [Churchill suggested such a technique back in 1936]. The cells are poured on to a “scaffold” and placed in a bioreactor, where they are stretched, possibly using electrical impulses, until they form muscle fibres.

The resulting flesh is then peeled off in a “meat-sheet”and may be ground up for sausages, patties or nuggets.

There are still some major hurdles to overcome:

  • Blood vessels: Nobody has yet grown an artery or a vein from stem cells; without blood, meat could only be grown in ultra-thin sheets, since each cell needs to be hydrated and nourished during growth... which means the "meat-sheet" must be thin enough that the growth medium will contact every cell.
  • Taste: Since this is brand new, nobody knows how much of taste in inherent in the meat, and how much is added by what the animal eats, drinks, and how much exercise it gets. Experience tasting the meat in many different countries tells me that a great deal of taste is nurture, not nature.
  • Luddite hysteria: every advance in food science is met by shrieks of "Frankenfood!" from portly, aging hippies who have never skipped a meal in their entire lives; and who have devoted those overfed lives to protecting the world's starving masses from the "wrong kind" of food.

I strongly suspect that the first two barriers will be broken; they're just engineering details: we'll learn to grow arteries, veins, and blood; and we'll learn how to artificially modify the natural taste of lab meat to give the distinct flavor of, e.g., Kobe beef or Finnish reindeer.

At that point, the world will experience a terrible war over the third hurdle: Do we proceed with the mass manufacture of such "in vitrio" meat and give the Third World the greatest nutritional gift in human history?

Or do we label it "Frankenfood" and condemn billions of people to starvation because our sensibilities are offended? (See if you can guess which answer I hope prevails; I tried to hide my biases as well as the elite media does.)

I first encountered the idea of growing meat in one of the best science fiction novels ever written, the Space Merchants, by Fred Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth (1953, first serialized as "Gravy Planet" in Galaxy Magazine, June/July/August 1952). In that dark, satirical book, the vast population of the Earth is fed meat sliced from "Chicken Little," a colossal (building sized), pulsating, quivering, artificially grown chicken heart.

Although the Space Merchants was intended as black humor, I was captivated by the idea of growing meat as easily as we grow vegetables, fruits, and grain in hydroponics greenhouses. It was incidental to the story, which was a satire on the world of advertising; but it was seared, seared in my memory.

All of this relates to the greatest promise of stem-cell research and cloning research: if we can grow specific body parts of humans from cells taken from the patient himself, there is almost no limit to what diseases, conditions, or injuries we can cure -- other than death itself. (And even that may fall within our lifetimes; the definition keeps getting narrower and narrower.)

Can we grow a human pancreas, to replace one lost to pancreatic cancer, without having to grow an entire human? Can we grow a chunk of brain tissue for a person who lost part of his brain to head trauma or Alzheimer's disease?

How about this: Can we grow a chunk of brain tissue to surgically implant into a healthy person to make him smarter? If that thought terrifies you -- you're reading the wrong blog!

And to wrench ourselves back to the topic, can we grow a living leg of lamb without having to grow an entire lamb? And if so, then minor distribution questions aside (whose solution may require invasion and regime change around the entire "Non-Integrating Gap," as Thomas P.M. Barnett calls the undeveloping world in the Pentagon's New Map), then why can't everybody in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Afghanistan, India, and China eat fresh meat morning, noon, and night, every day of the week? (If they develop cholesterol problems, we can sell millions of prescriptions of Lipitor.)

To borrow even more from Barnett, consider this question: As we construct the new "rule sets" for the post-9/11 world, the most urgent task is to integrate the entire world into what he calls the "Third Globalization"... which should be done by force, if necessary, as it is precisely those countries and territories that isolate themselves from the rest of the world that become breeding grounds for extremism, terrorism, and jihad.

Does that mean we must simply begin supplying such "Frankenmeat" to the Non-Integrating Gap, no matter what the local governments have to say about it? I say Yes; and if Zaire, Zimbabwe, and Nepal don't like it -- they can go boil an owl. Or some artificial owl meat.

(Did I mention you can use this technique to make meals out of endangered species without endangering even a single individual of that species? For that matter, you could use it to grow human flesh to peddle to cannibals, weaning them off "long-pig" on the hoof.)

The world can no longer tolerate mass stupidity on such a genocidal scale: just as we should never again tolerate a holocaust like what the Nazis did in Germany (or what the Tutsis and Hutus did in Rwanda-Burundi)... we should also no longer tolerate mass starvation in order to save the face of some isolationist, totalitarian, Marxist or sharia state. It is too much to ask of the rest of us to put up with gross, catastrophic incompetence and indifference.

Free Chicken Little! And have a heart, guys... on me.

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, January 13, 2007, at the time of 7:39 PM

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» Growing meat from stem cells from Dawnsblood
It sounds a bit creepy, but it could be the answer to a lot of the world's hunger problems. You remove a lot of the problems such as disease and space needed to house the livestock and other variables without introducing too many additional... [Read More]

Tracked on January 14, 2007 3:47 PM


The following hissed in response by: SkyWatch

People will not eat/buy genetic altered corn or wheat and you think they will eat meat grown in a dish. Come on India is hungry but they don't eat cows. The muslim countries are trying with everything they have (meaning US give me's) but will not eat pork. US will not eat grub worms. Maybe Africa but I think they turned down the Gen.Mod. maze.

Yea grow the stuff in a dish that will help peoples attitudes.

The above hissed in response by: SkyWatch [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 14, 2007 12:27 AM

The following hissed in response by: SkyWatch

I should add, for any USA people your corn that you buy in the store is gentecily altered. When I grew the junk we got it up to 3 ears a stalk. Naturaly it has 2. Now I think they grow it with 4 but could be wrong on that.

The above hissed in response by: SkyWatch [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 14, 2007 1:31 AM

The following hissed in response by: TBinSTL

Sounds like Steak-ums just drew an inside straight!

The above hissed in response by: TBinSTL [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 14, 2007 2:11 AM

The following hissed in response by: Davod

You will never solve the problems of the starving masses because distribution, not lack of food, is the problem.

You can talk about luddites, and mass stupidity, all you want, but the fact is there is a lot of dangerous science being performed with no checks and balances, all in the name of mankind.

Soylent Green here we come.

The above hissed in response by: Davod [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 14, 2007 7:44 AM

The following hissed in response by: SkyWatch

Off topic (as usual).

How about a post on the quotes from movies that have made it into the mainstream of conscionce?

Soylent Green is (example)= cattle that do not know they are cattle until to late.

Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn (example)= I understand but boys will walk away if it is in best interest.

The above hissed in response by: SkyWatch [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 14, 2007 9:14 AM

The following hissed in response by: Hal

Actually, there's already been success with growing new bladders in the lab. It was one of the greatest scientific advances of 2006.

The previous poster is right, though; most of your food is genetically modified, despite the fear-mongering. Most of it is simple modifications, designed to make it more resistant to disease or able to withstand weed/pest killers, but it's there.

The above hissed in response by: Hal [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 14, 2007 1:50 PM

The following hissed in response by: Jewels

Ok, on this subject, and, interestingly enough, also on the subject of sci fi novels, this past summer I read a ghastly bit of fiction (that, incidentally, received grand reviews- go figure). It was so bad, I promptly forgot the title and author of the book. However, the cover was blue, if that helps.

Anyway. While the plot of the book dragged on pointlessly, the premise was genius and has stuck with me. The book was set some time in the future (brilliant!) in a world where death had been virtually conquered except by those who wished to die. All new organs, bones, and tissues were regenerated and replaced as they wore out or were broken. Not only that, but sexual identity in culture was completely wiped out. One year you might live as a woman, the next you might decide you'd had enough and grew yourself a penis. Some people didn't want to be bothered with any of it and simply had all organs removed. (why not?)

This new ability opened the doors to other cultural changes as well. Bloody and staged "murders" were a new sporting event. (people could always regenerate a new arm after it's been ripped from a socket.) People weren't shocked by the behavior as the injuries were never permanent.

Anyway, not to sound like an over-weight hippy, but the possibilities did seem rather... unappealing.

The above hissed in response by: Jewels [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 15, 2007 11:52 AM

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