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.