Will a steak taste as good if it comes from a lab as it does from a cow?

iStockphoto/Thinkstock

A lot of us love the taste of a nice juicy hamburger or a T-bone steak that's been broiled just right. But even as we're salivating over that delicious sizzling hunk of goodness on our plates, there's a certain unappetizing reality that some of us don't like to think about. In order to get the meat for our delicious meal, a cow had to be killed and butchered. And we humans tend to feel an affinity toward cows, with their big eyes, flapping tails and soulful mooing. We smile at computer-generated anthropomorphic cows in TV commercials, because, well, we like to imagine what they would say if they could speak to us. We like cows, but we also like to eat them. It's a bedeviling conundrum. Some people solve it by become vegetarians, and abstaining from eating what they call "food with a face." But if you're accustomed to the taste of animal flesh -- and the protein, iron and other nutrients that it contains in abundance -- a tofu burger or a plate of rice and beans may seem like a poor substitute.

But wouldn't it be great if you could have all the meat you wanted, but without having to kill any animals? It probably seems like an impossible fantasy, like those talking cows in the commercials. But guess again. It may not be too long before you're able to dine on some delicious meat that looks, smells and tastes exactly like top quality organic grass-fed beef. But instead of coming from a cow, it'll come from a laboratory.

For years, scientists have envisioned the manufacturing of synthetic meat, which would involve taking a small amount of muscle cells from a living animal and using it to culture lumps of tissue that then could be cooked and eaten, just like real beef or chicken. But recently, they've moved closer to making mass-produced test-tube burgers a reality. In 2011, University of Missouri tissue engineering specialist Gabor Forgacs not only produced a sample of synthetic muscle, but publicly ate some of it at a scientific conference. He's started a company, Modern Meadows, which eventually aims to produce the stuff for consumers. Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, a team of researchers led by Maastricht University vascular physiologist Mark Post also claims to be on the verge of unveiling an artificial burger of its own [source: Levitt].

In this article, we'll tell you about how scientists are trying to make synthetic meat, and how it may change our dining habits. But first, let's look at the history of the quest for fake flesh.