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Dressing the meat of tomorrow

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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If you take a small sample of animal tissue and encourage it to grow in vitro, separate from the original animal’s body, it is possible to create an edible piece of meat. Culturing living tissue is a routine lab procedure and an important part of medical and biological research, but using the tools and techniques of tissue engineering as the basis for industrialised food production is an idea that some people may find unpalatable.

Disembodied cuisine

The first piece of in vitro meat grown for human consumption was not produced by science or industry, it was produced by art. More specifically, it was created by the artists Oron Catts, Ionat Zurr and Guy Ben Ary in 2003 as part of their ongoing Tissue Culture and Arts project. The meat was cultured from frog cells and was subsequently eaten by a group of invited guests at a gallery in France.

Study for Disembodied Cuisine . The Tissue Culture and Art Project – Oron Catts, Ionat Zurr and Guy Ben Ary, 2000

I was introduced to the idea of in vitro meat in 2006 when studying design at the Royal College of Art in London. My tutors, Tony Dunne and Fiona Raby asked my class to envision a future in which in vitro meat was no longer confined to the lab (or the gallery) and had become part of everyday life. My initial gut reaction to this idea was that of disgust but this subsided after a few days of research and contemplation and gave way to curiosity.

If we imagine that in vitro meat has become more cost effective, higher in quality and more humane than traditional livestock farming then what sort of meat would we be eating? What size would it be if it’s no longer limited by the size of any animal? What shape would it have if it is no longer limited by anatomical constraints? How much would it cost and who would buy it? Would we be happy eating something that looked like this:

In vitro meat with potatoes. James King, 2006

The above image is my interpretation of what an in vitro meat dish would look like if you scooped it from the hypothetical vat and onto the plate. Admittedly this image does not convey flavour or smell, but it certainly doesn’t look appetising. Why would anyone choose to eat it?

Just palatable enough

Instead, lets imagine an enterprising and creative chef of tomorrow who is bored of serving up formless, tasteless meat and wants to differentiate his cuisine. He does his research and reads old text books that detail the historical animal known as the cow. He becomes excited by the false colour illustrations of their anatomy. He selects the parts he finds most interesting. Not the boring bits we eat today, but the more intricate shapes found in the abdomen and the brain.

Anatomy studies. James King, 2006

From these patterns, he constructs a mould into which he cultures his cells and serves the result to an appreciative clientele who are pleased by this more authentic form of meat and willing to pay for it.

Right: Meat mould. James King, 2006

Dressing the Meat of Tomorrow, James King 2006

The image above is nothing more than a model made from fibreglass-reinforced polyester with the kind help of a fake food factory in London. Any value it has is as a piece of fiction. My intention was to design a piece of in vitro meat that was made with craft rather than mass produced homogeneity and, depending on your taste, appeared just palatable enough to eat.

From Wired Magazine, March 2008

Design and the Elastic Mind, MoMA, NYC. Exhibition curated by Paola Antonelli, 2008

Because it is a designed object rather than a piece of written fiction, this vision of in vitro meat production has a different audience and a different way of engaging people. It has been presented in exhibitions as a dish ready to be eaten and in magazines alongside advertisements for shampoo. Although it is a product that you cannot buy, you can judge it in the same way you judge which food to buy in the supermarket. A debate about whether in vitro meat is good or bad can become less abstract and you get to ask all sorts of new questions, the most important of which is "Would I want to eat it?"

Into the lab

In 2008 I was lucky enough to be invited to join a workshop run by Oron Catts for artists and designers to learn the tools and techniques of biotechnology. We spent 4 days in a lab at the University of Stavanger in Norway, learning basic microbiology techniques such as DNA extraction and bacteria cultivation. To understand how the lab equipment worked, we built our own from parts of air conditioners, plastic boxes and aluminium foil.

DIY Incubator made by participants in the Biotech Art Workshop organised by Oron Catts, Stavanger Norway, 2008

On the final day of the workshop we learned basic tissue culture protocol. What was surprising was how much more difficult this was from both a technical and ethical perspective than I had previously thought. Firstly there are the materials themselves: the only reliable nutrient source for cell cultures is a a serum extracted from calf foetuses at the time of their mother’s slaughter. This isn’t the most pleasant substance to deal with or even think about, but unless a synthetic alternative can be found, the idea of industrialised in vitro meat production seems ludicrous. It makes no sense to slaughter two cows to feed the growth of a small amount of in vitro meat.

Manipulating cell cultures

The cells themselves were fragile, prone to contamination and infection and in need of near constant attention. In stark contrast to this was the procedure we learnt to genetically transform E.coli bacteria. In the space of a single morning and with no previous training, we were able to insert a gene into E.coli that codes for green fluorescent protein and which originates from a jelly fish. The procedure involved tools that were no more complicated than a bucket of ice and a hot water bath. After incubating overnight we placed them under UV light. They fluoresced a bright green.

E. coli bacteria expressing the GFP gene. James King, 2008

Growing meat without the animal sounds like a simple idea. Certainly much simpler than manipulating the genetic code. In reality there are hidden practicalities which only become apparent when you deal with the real materials and processes of biotechnology, or at least work closely with people that do. The experience of working in the lab was inspiring, but it also made me reassess the way I should work as a designer engaging with biotechnology. I realised that I couldn’t keep the science at arm’s length but should instead take every opportunity to get into the lab and, as Oron Catts likes to say, get my hands wet.

About the Author: James King is a speculative designer working to explore the implications of future biotechnology. He collaborates with scientists and works between the lab and studio to design potential applications for their research. This work has been exhibited internationally, most notably at MoMA and the Wellcome Trust and reproduced in publications such as Wired, SEED and The Guardian. James tweets as @jamesking and his work can be found at www.james-king.net.

 

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






Comments 12 Comments

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  1. 1. TobyNSaunders 12:32 pm 03/23/2011

    The notion that muscle is desirable or even healthy as food is misled; a vegan diet costs significantly fewer resources to produce (the ratio of omnivorism to veganism is something like 30:1 in terms of water alone), signficantly less suffering (most important) and it’s healthier. The greenest thing any human could do is go from omnivorism to veganism, so lab-made muscle is ridiculously wasteful… lab-muscle is better than actually murdering a child-like conscious individual for food, but plant diets are easiest & best overall.

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  2. 2. TobyNSaunders 12:34 pm 03/23/2011

    -plant diet meaning veganism, not ‘going on a diet’ as they say regarding short-term regimes.

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  3. 3. Shrike 2:10 pm 03/23/2011

    Toby your argument is futile because even though you may truly believe what your saying, it’s still reads like pathetic PETA propaganda. Humans are omnivores. Get over it. I particularily enjoy roasted pig, especially when you get the ear and it’s all crispy. Mmmm… making me hungry just thinking about it.

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  4. 4. SusannahA 2:27 pm 03/23/2011

    This last section should be required reading for all armchair theorists. Bravo!

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  5. 5. dethb0y 2:36 pm 03/23/2011

    The solution to in vitro meat being unsavory’s the same as the solution we use for many kinds of meat today: grind it up and mix it with something else.

    Take your fancy vat-meat and turn it into sausage, for example, or hot dogs, or hamburger. Mix in some seasoning and artificial flavoring and no one would care about the difference. Millions of people eat hot dogs every day, and millions more eat hamburger. If we can displace even 10% Of that to this stuff, how many acres of farmland would it preserve?

    The key isn’t to replace 100% of the world’s consumption of meat with this stuff, but just to make it so you can do more with less resources. If you can make the stuff cheaper then beef or pork or whatever, how many more people could we keep from malnutrition? How many lives could we improve by better access to inexpensive, high-nutrient content food?

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  6. 6. MCMalkemus 4:23 pm 03/23/2011

    Fantastic idea.

    I don’t like the idea of subjecting animals to concentration camp existence, but I must eat meat or my bones begin to weaken.

    I will switch to lab grown meat the day it is available in the market. Just make it fillet minion.

    In addition, this process will likely require far less resources to grow, and be far better for the environment.

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  7. 7. Pugsley 4:41 pm 03/23/2011

    Veganism is only healthy for a year or two, until deficiencies work in. I’ve known many longterm vegans and they are unhealthy-looking and low in energy. On the other hand, lacto-ovo vegetarians seem to be quite healthy for the most part.

    Meat and fish have been a part of the human diet right from the beginning, according to archeologists, especially in ice age climates where plant foods were much less common. There’s no sense in fad diets which are contrary to our biological nature. Animals have to die to feed lions too, even chimpanzees occasionally kill to eat meat. It sucks, but that’s just how life is, there aren’t any real glittery unicorns.

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  8. 8. James King 6:37 am 03/24/2011

    Thanks SusannahA, that was the whole point of writing this post!

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  9. 9. Tom J 3:50 pm 03/24/2011

    Just wondering, what are the ethical implications of eating lab-grown human flesh?

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  10. 10. notslic 4:54 pm 03/24/2011

    My pond is fed by a spring. I use gravity to irrigate my pastures and water my stock. My stock fertilize the grass that grows back every spring. I rotate pastures. Excess grass is stored for winter feed. Also, the sun and wind power my freezers. What is not "green" about my food production?

    The disgusting factory farm/ranch is only necessary to feed the worthless populations of the giant cities. They can eat the in vitro meat since it wouldn’t be much different than what they get now. Since there are no jobs here, I don’t have to worry about any stinkin’ vegans moving here. Vegan is an old Native American word for "Bad Hunter".

    Shrike…I trade Angus for Pork. Love those ears.

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  11. 11. Pugsley 9:36 pm 03/24/2011

    Even though I don’t think it’s bad to eat meat (I do it often) I personally would prefer to eat the lab-grown stuff if it could be made both meaty tasting and meaty textured. I’d rather no animals were harmed in the production of my food. But that would be a personal choice, I have no problems with other people choosing the real thing as long as the animal is killed quickly and relatively painlessly. If it’s not from a factory farm, they’ve had a decent life, and after all everything that lives must die eventually.

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  12. 12. chrislow 5:26 am 03/25/2011

    Friday moring humor – humans eat bovine animal meat, bovine animals eat grass and are vegan. Therefore meat is vegan once removed.

    Seriously, wait until the intellectual property crowd weighs in on having their designer pound of flesh.

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