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How do you grow meat in a lab?

Creating Imitation Beef
How soon before lab-grown meat appears at a store near you?
How soon before lab-grown meat appears at a store near you?

The Dutch team headed by Post envisions using cow stem cells -- the building blocks of muscles and other organs -- to create synthetic meat. In the lab, they've cultured stem cells in petri dishes, and then put them together in a small container so that they produce muscle cells, which grow and form small pieces of muscle about 2 centimeters long, 1 centimeter wide and about a millimeter thick. The off-white strips of synthetic flesh look more like calamari than hamburger, and the taste is pretty bland. But researchers envision growing bigger patty-like hunks in round containers, and then mixing it with artificial blood and fat so that it gets a more meaty texture, smell and taste [source: Ghosh].

Modern Meadow, the outfit started by University of Missouri researcher Forgacs, plans to add an even stranger wrinkle to the synthetic meat concept. The company envisions using a 3-D printer to spray successive layers of "bio-ink" composed of muscle cells to build fake steak or hamburger. Modern Meadow says this process will enable it to manufacture meat faster and more efficiently than processes previously envisioned by scientists [source: U.S. Department of Agriculture].

A 2011 Wired magazine article points out that while fake burgers seem to be on the horizon, there are still some daunting technical hurdles to be overcome. It's not easy to trick stem cells to growing meat, and it requires a complex soup of fuels, salts, minerals, hormones and other stuff to grow muscle cells that are healthy enough to survive. And growing a piece of meat as complicated as say, a porterhouse steak, is going to be a real challenge. An actual slab of porterhouse isn't just a bunch of muscle cells that stick together. The cells are part of muscle fibers, which in turn integrated with one another into a complex piece of tissue that is capable of doing work in a living animal's body. The tissue also contains a network of blood vessels and deposits of fat, all of which contribute subtly to the appearance, texture and taste [source: Timmer].