Yum or yuck? Test tube bacon from stem cells

test-tube-baconWait…test tube bacon?

Coming soonish to a BLT or breakfast near you?

An article in Nature’s Scientific Reports tells us that scientists have taking some first baby steps toward bacon or at least a meaty bacon-like product from stem cells.

Would you eat test tube bacon? Take our poll below.

One of the possible positives of test tube bacon is that it would give people meat to eat without killing pigs. Could be better for the environment too. Possible downsides include taste or sensibility issues…maybe even safety depending on the lab conditions.

The article, entitled “Enhanced Development of Skeletal Myotubes from Porcine Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells” has gotten considerable media attention (e.g. here).

The authors do seem to have food on their minds as it pertains to the outcomes from their paper such as in this concluding statement:

Thus, the molecular control mechanisms directing porcine skeletal muscle development have considerable implications for medicine, agriculture and food technology.

In a nutshell, the researchers used pig IPS cells to make myotubes, the main structural component of muscle, in a dish. Enough of these myotubes and you’ve got something resembling meat.

What’s missing?

How about the fat component that is so important to bacon’s texture and flavor? Note that I’m a pescetarian myself, but used to enjoy bacon now and then.

The notion of lab grown meat such as test tube burgers has been around for a few years now and I did a post on some hype about the lab grown burgers a few years back.

Stem cells promise Noah’s ark of test-tube meat choices, but flood of questions too

Paul Stem Cell Burger PicEnvision biting into a warm juicy burger with all the trimmings.

If you are a burger fan, your mouth may already be watering.

If you are a vegetarian or animal welfare advocate, however, you might be rather disturbed by this imagery.

Now imagine that as you are still chewing a bite of that same burger the server tells you that this beef burger was grown in a plastic dish in a stem cell lab. No cow involved!

Would you have a beef with such a bioengineered burger? Or celebrate the fact that no cow lost its life to make this burger? Can we even call this test tube meet “beef” and would a vegetarian eat it?

We had better start thinking about such questions because laboratory grown meat produced from stem cells is already a reality with the first stem cell-based lab grown “test tube” burger having been fried up and even eaten.

The advocates of these bio-burgers prefer the term “cultured beef”, which conjures an image in my mind of a cow in a tutu doing ballet at the Bolshoi. Whatever you call it, laboratory grown meat produced from stem cells is just one of many stem cell-based endeavors based on outside-the-box thinking.

I have dedicated one chapter of my new book, “Stem Cells: An Insider’s Guide” to discuss stem cell burgers and other mind-blowing innovations that allow one to get one’s stem cell geek on. When it comes to stem cells, non-fiction is becoming more interesting than fiction with developments underway or planned including not just stem cell burgers, but also stem cell-based de-extinction and entire organ replacement.

Getting back to the burger, researchers created it by assembling sheets of test tube meat grown from stem cells into a single “schmeat” five-ounce burger at a total cost of more than $330,000 or approximately $1 million/pound. Schmeat, a portmanteau of “sheet” and “meat”, is one of the terms coined for the bioengineered meat. Google co-founder Sergey Brin picked up the tab for this test tube burger at a price tag that was 100,000 times more expensive than a typical fast food burger.

The only connection between this burger and an actual cow was a relatively small number of stem cells that had to be sourced at some point from living cow muscle. In principle the same technology can easily go beyond beef. It simply would depend on stem cells being available from any given species. The sky, or shall I say barnyard or forest, is the limit when it comes to the possible types of stem cell engineered meats and fast food products that could made in the same manner in the near future.

The stem cells involved could be of a variety of types ranging from muscle and fat stem cells to so-called pluripotent stem cells that can make essentially any type of cell. In fact, the inclusion of both muscle and fat tissue in a burger would likely make it tastier.

Nine years ago the first mammal, Dolly the sheep, was cloned. Snuppy, produced in 2005 by controversial Korean stem cell researcher Hwang Woo-Suk, was the first dog cloned. We now have the possibility of a cloned pork or beef hotdog made from stem cells becoming a reality in the next few years. Woo-Suk is also involved in a de-extinction effort to clone actual living Wooly Mammoths.

In principle one could even grow such “delicacies” as abalone meat, rhino horns, tiger parts, or shark fins entirely in a lab from stem cells, perhaps saving endangered or threatened species.

Some have even raised the disturbing possibility of making human meat for consumption by people from human stem cells. Would this be a high-tech form of cannibalism? In theory, one could even make burgers from a consumer’s very own stem cells creating a new form of autophagy (self-digestion) that cell biologists never imagined. You could have yourself and eat it/yourself too.

Beyond mind-bending ethical issues, more immediate concerns about stem cell produced meats relate to safety issues. A safety mantra is drilled into the minds of researchers from day one of their careers: do not eat in the lab! Therefore, for many biologists the idea of eating something actually made entirely in a lab seems on first glance, well, crazy. Labs can have all kinds of viruses, chemicals, and other hazards.

On the other hand, test tube food would likely be manufactured in so-called “clean” labs of the same kind designed for producing stem cell products intended for human use. Such labs are likely infinitely cleaner and safer than your average cattle ranch and butcher shop. Still I found it concerning that the team that made the first test tube burger served it right up to human taste testers and downplayed safety concerns in videos of the tasting that were on TV.

The rationale for lab grown meat is to create a new, more ethical and sustainable reality of food production. In this envisioned future, meat would come from labs grown by researchers from stem cells rather than from farms grown by farmers from animals. Hypothetically the goals of increasing environmental sustainability and promoting animal welfare are noble, but I just do not believe that lab grown meat is the way to achieve these objectives any time soon.

Beyond the safety concerns of lab-produced meat, there are other pesky issues too such as the reliance on the use of Fetal Bovine Serum (FBS) to grow the meat cells. The fact that meat stem cells require FBS to grow undermines the argument for animal welfare as a rationale for lab-grown meat because FBS is a product made by draining the blood from cow fetuses. Not a pretty picture.

Another important question is whether it even makes any sense at all to produce meat in a lab for human consumption. As it turns out the nutrient rich broth, which we call “media” in the stem cell field, that must be used to grow the cells to make the schmeat is likely just as healthy or healthier for people to consume than the meat itself. The media is full of amino acids, vitamins, and other goodies making it an Ensure-like beverage that would be far easier and cheaper for people to directly drink rather than using it indirectly to make synthetic meat. Meanwhile, others are working feverishly on meat simulants that are entirely vegan in nature. Still others are focused on producing affordable complete nutrient products, such as Plumpy’nut, to more directly fight malnutrition around the world. This highlights one of the primary criticisms of synthetic meat. Opponents assert that it will never be cost effective.

I hope that decades in the future, lab-grown meat will become a practical, safe, and even cost-effective reality as an alternative, more environmentally friendly food source, with the technology having ironed out the problems I mentioned earlier. The proponents of cultured meat made from stem cells would be wise to address safety and other practical concerns more openly as they proceed with this line of work.

Meanwhile, we can imagine ordering a Mammoth Burger in a future that is something of a wacky mash up between The Flintstones and The Jetsons. The teenager working the cash register at our favorite burger joint in that reality will ask us “You want fries with that?” without batting an eye, understanding implicitly that we want not just a really big burger, but one made of actual cloned Wooly Mammoth meat grown in a lab from stem cells.

This piece was first published last week on Sciam.

Would you eat the stem cell test tube burger? Take our polls!

If you answered either “Probably not” or “No way!”, why? Take our 2nd poll below.

If you answered “Probably” or “Definitely Yes!” please take the 3rd poll.




Where’s the Beef? Reality Check on Test Tube Burger Baloney

Mark Post of Maastricht University UnVeiling Test Tube Burger

What is the deal with the crazy hullaballoo over the so-called stem cell test tube burger?

On the surface, this pseudo-burger sounds kinda cool in a geeky, comic book kind of way, but when I dug just a little deeper, it turns out I’m left asking: where’s the beef?

After the burger was mentioned briefly on late night monologues here in the US last week, there’s been a regular media test tube burger firestorm the last day or so.


A couple days ago the test tube burger had a media launch that might make Lady Gaga, who once wore a meat dress, give a tip of one of her crazy hats to Dr. Mark Post of Maastricht University, who is seen above literally unveiling the lab-grown burger on a staged TV cooking show of sorts.

The event launching the burger this week was more public relations stunt than anything else and was about as far removed from science as possible.

As a cell biologist that makes me question the science behind & safety of this burger. Update: with a hat tip to Bill Busa in the comments, the #1 safety rule in all labs is “no food in the lab!” For this reason, the test tube burger is very much a safety oxymoron. 

Did the scientists involved ask the appropriate governmental agencies that regulate food and lab safety for permission to let human beings eat his lab-produced burger? I am not sure but kinda doubt it and I bet they would have prohibited it.

Being concerned and curious, I politely emailed Dr. Post a few days ago to ask just a few simple questions focused on the science behind the burger, but got no reply.

I believe this burger media frenzy due essentially to the launch of an ad campaign is a bunch of baloney.

There are four common sense reasons to have serious doubts about the test tube burger.

  • First of all, the reasons for making this lab burger are highly questionable at best. Proponents of the test tube burger say it is an ethical advance because it could help animal welfare and provide sustainable food sources. I am very skeptical of those ideas. For example, to grow the cells to make the synthetic meat, you almost certainly need enormous volumes of fetal bovine serum, which is a blood serum isolated from fetal cows. That doesn’t seem to fit very well with the animal welfare angle, does it? Don’t want to use fetal bovine serum? The only alternative today is super duper expensive synthetic growth factors that would make the meat even  pricier and have issues of their own. For example, eating synthetic growth factor-containing meat could possibly increase cancer risk.
  • Second, the cell media, a nutrient rich broth used to get the stem and muscle cells to grow the synthetic meat, is probably healthier and far cheaper than the fake meat itself. Why not simply give people the growth media as an Ensure-like liquid food? You really think fake meat is going to be more appetizing?
  • Third, there is the tremendous price. That one burger these guys made cost more than $300,000. Let’s see, I can get a tasty burger at In-N-Out for about $3. That 100,000-fold difference in price seems like one giant cow patty-sized problem for the proponents of the stem cell burger to overcome.
  • Fourth, and most serious, there are some serious safety concerns. I wouldn’t exactly rush in to eat the lab-grown meat. In fact, I would highly recommend that no one eat it. Why? It could literally be quite dangerous even if cooked. All kinds of nasties are floating around in labs including toxic chemicals, viruses, bacteria, mycobacteria, synthetic DNA, other cells that could contaminate the cultures, not to mention chemicals from the plastic dishes, stuff in the fetal bovine serum and much much more that you don’t want in your body. Believe me.

Regarding that fourth point, it concerned me greatly to see Dr. Post say on TV that there are “no risks” from the test tube burger. As someone who has been growing cells in the lab for more than 2 decades, I strongly disagree with him on the safety issue.

Bottom line? Lab-growth cellular meat is not likely to become practical during our lifetimes. It’s one of those cool ideas cooked up by us geeky scientists, but I think it’s mostly a bunch of baloney. Finally, the mega-PR blitz surrounding the burger seems almost as “yuck” to me as the idea of eating a burger grown in a lab. Scientists need to interact with the media more and talk directly to the public, but this went way too far to the extreme.