Global Tech News – $330,000 Lab-Grown Burger Funded by Google’s Sergey Brin

Let’s face it — a large portion of Americans enjoy the taste of a juicy hamburger.  Animal rights activists, on the other hand, are quick to complain about a host of allegations against the commercial meat industry, which keeps animals in pen-confined conditions and practices what some say is questionable slaughtering practices.

I. Where’s the Beef?  In the Test Tube!

But even overlooking the ethics and “animal rights” issues, there’s fundamental efficiency questions to be asked before demanding, “Where’s the beef?”

Beef farming has been criticized for increasing methane emissions (cows are ruminants, fermenting food during digestion producing carbon gases as a waste byproduct).  Five percent of carbon dioxide emissions and forty percent of methane emissions come from cattle farming.  Beef farming also requires a lot of land – currently, 30 percent of useable land mass is employed as pasture for livestock versus only 4 percent that’s used to directly grow food for humans.  

Some of these facts and figures are slickly summed up by this infographic from NPR‘s food blog “theSALT”:

By 2060, the world population is expected to soar to 9.5 billion and meat consumption is expected to rise 73 percent according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations leading to dilemma as humans compete against their own pastureland for space.  That predicted crisis has researchers asking: what if you could grow meat in a lab, requiring little land, little water, minimal feed, and a greatly reduced carbon footprint?  

It’s an idea that’s long fascinated science fiction authors, and is at last becoming reality.  A project by researchers at the Maastricht Univ., the Netherland’s biggest international college, is among the first to produce edible quantities of test-tube meat.  

A researcher at Maastricht Univ. cultures the lab beef. [Image Source: CNN]
Led by famed physiologist Dr. Mark Post, the project is funded by a €250,000 ($331,300 USD) grant from Russian-American entrepeneur Sergey Brin who co-founded internet software giant Google Inc. (GOOG).

The meat project is funded by Google’s Sergey Brin. [Image Source: TED Blog]
II. The World’s First Test Tube Burger Gets Cooked

The project has produced an impressive visual result — the world’s first synthetic hamburger.  

Sergey Brin describes, “When you see how these cows are treated, it’s certainly something I’m not comfortable with.  [While the synthetic alternative] is really just proof of concept right now, we’re trying to create the first cultured beef hamburger.  From there I’m optimistic that we can really scale by leaps and bounds.”

The completed “burger” consists of 20,000 muscle fibers cultured from stem cells and painstakingly extracted from culture wells and pressed together with cultured fat cells/layers to form a growing tissue.  On a cellular level the synthetic burger isn’t differentiable from the real thing; on a tissue level it’s also designed to be highly similar to cow meat, if a bit leaner.

The burger was cooked up along with a store-bought hamburger and evaluated by a panel of tasters in London, Monday afternoon.  The panel included Chicago-based author of Taste of Tomorrow, Josh Schonwald, and an Austrian food trends researcher, Hanni Rützler of the Future Food Studio.

The chef on hand was British celebrity chef Richard Mcgeown, Head Chef of Couch’s Great House Restaurant in Polperro, Cornwall.  Noting the synthetic burger’s slightly paler appearance (due to lack of vasculature), he cooked it up with sunflower oil and a bit of butter.  The five-ounce (142g) burger was served on a toasted bun with sliced tomato, then chopped up and distributed to the testers.

III. It Taste Like Beef, if a Bit Less Juicy

The testers seemed to have mixed sentiments on the burger — partially due to the cooking style.  Ms. Rützler took the chef to task for his cooking style, commenting, “It misses salt and pepper.”

As for the meat itself, she says, “There is quite some intense flavor.  The look was quite similar to meat. It has quite a bite.  The surface of the meat was crunchy — surprisingly. The taste itself was as juicy as meat can be, but different. It tastes like meat, not a meat substitute like soya or whatever.”

Mr. Schonwald chimes in, “There is a leanness to it.  The absence of fat is what makes it taste different.  I would say it is somewhere on the spectrum between a Boca Burger [soy burger brand] and McDonald’s.  The absence of fat makes a big difference. It has the texture, which I was not expecting. It was like an animal-protein cake.”

The somewhat unsatisfying taste fat-wise stems from the fact that researchers are still struggling to produce tissues that mix grown muscle and fat layers, as naturally occurring cow tissues do.  The lack of salt and pepper?  That’s likely the chef’s fault.

Critics bite into the lab meat [Image Source: Oligvy PR]
But the fact that the burger was close to the real thing in texture and taste is a major achievement for Dr. Post’s team.  And the researcher says it helps light the way for a path to commercial sales of synthetic meat in 10 to 20 years.  By then, he says, the cells will still take as long to grow, but they’ll be cultured by robots millions at a time producing millions of pounds of test-tube meat.

Dr. Post hopes to reach commercial production in 10 to 20 years. [Image Source: PA]
Dr. Post warns:
I think most people don’t realize that the current meat production is at its maximum. We need to come up with an alternative…  Cows are very inefficient, they require 100g of vegetable protein to produce only 15g of edible animal protein.  So we need to feed the cows a lot so that we can feed ourselves. We lose a lot of food that way. [With cultured meat] we can make it more efficient because we have all the variables under control. We don’t need to kill the cow and it doesn’t [produce] any methane.
One key advantage of test-tube meat is that it lacks hormones — including testosterone and estrogen that are found in low levels in mammal meat and are taken up during lipid absorption in the small intestine.  These hormones clearly aren’t overly dangerous, but they may have a minor adverse affect as they are identical or highly similar to those found in the human body, potential suppressing natural production.

Another perk is that energy from the feed slurry isn’t wasted to produce generally undesired content like organs (lungs, brain, heart, etc.) and bones.  The approach also eliminates risk of prion designs (e.g. mad cow diseases) and reduces the risks of meat-borne pathogens via a sterile growing environment.

IV. Price Remains Sky High

The test-tube meat is currently very expensive — the burger cost just slightly more than Mr. Brin’s over $300K donation, a price of about $70,000 USD/oz.  By contrast Japan’s coveted Kobe (Wagyu) beef goes for about $9.40 USD/oz. [source].  In time, though, Dr. Post believes the test-tube meat will be cost-competitive with the real thing.

The test-tube route may not be the only approach on the table.  Some reports have indicated that scientists in Japan have supposedly been working on “poop burgers” and “fecal steaks” — a slightly different approach, using proteins from bacteria to make synthetic meat.  However, these stories have since been traced back to unverifiable press releases in the 1990s that may be part of an elaborate viral hoax.

The controversial head of the UN International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Rajendra Pachauri, Ph.D, has proposed that people refrain from eating meat at least one day a week to combat climate change.  But with the help of lab meat both the emissions and space issues could be a thing of the past.

Test-tube meat is not the only wild experimental investment/project for Mr. Brin.  The researcher, who devised much of Google’s core data mining and search “PageRank” algorithm, is currently working on maturing the Glass Explorer wearable Android device at Google.  He’s also funding Space Adventures, a startup looking to offer moon trips for $100M USD, and explore a joint venture with wealthy movie director James Cameron to finance journeys to asteroids, which could open the door to space mining operations.