Would you eat meat grown from embryonic cells in a lab?
Researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina hope so.
Scientists there have spent the past several years learning to grow "in vitro" or "cultured" meat. In other words, they grow the food without the rest of the animal.
Beginning in December, the team got a boost from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which funded a project to eventually make the meat available for public consumption.
Here's how it works:
Scientists take a biopsy from an animal. They extract stem cells and add "growth serum" to multiply them. The compound binds together to form muscle and receives electric shocks to boost protein content. It's then ground, flavored and spiked with vitamins and other nutrients. The first samples from MUSC will look like "meat bars," researchers said.
In the coming months, Dr. Vladimir Mironov, from the Department of Regenerative Medicine and Cell Biology, will oversee the first clinical trial of "Charlem," short for "Charleston- engineered meat" at MUSC. He declined to release details of the trial.
The first public taste-test will happen in Sweden in August, but it could be up to a decade before the product is available for general consumption in the U.S., said Nicholas J. Genovese, a visiting scholar working on behalf of PETA.
But Mironov and Genovese think they could find a market for the first-generation product -- expected to be very costly -- among the very wealthy. They plan to tailor the meat according to people's preferences, making available different levels of fat content and flavoring.
They've applied for incorporation to start the very first "carnery" (think: bakery, brewery) where meat would be produced. Mironov, who said repeatedly he aspires to be the "Google of agriculture," said venture capitalists are beginning to line up. He declined to say how much funding has been secured for the project.
The implication for global food production could be huge, Mironov said, possibly able to address food shortages and the dwindling land available for raising cattle and crops to feed animals.
By 2050, world meat production must double to keep up with demand, Genovese said. Cultured meat could be a way to ramp up supply.
PETA spokesman Bruce Friedrich said his organization gave Mironov a small grant to study the idea about a decade ago. PETA, a group more commonly associated with boycotting lab research, has tracked progress on cultured meat since then. About 98 percent of animals that die annually in the U.S. are killed for the meat industry, Friedrich said.
But at a time when people are gravitating toward the local and organic food movement, the scientists must overcome what they call the "yuck" factor of food produced in a lab. They don't seem to be concerned.
"People are already eating genetically-modified food," Mironov said, pointing specifically to corn and the recent litigation claiming Taco Bell's meat filling isn't beef. "People eat artificial flavors every day. ...I don't think it will be difficult to convince people to try it."
Friedrich agreed: "When you look at the difference between eating an animal's rotting corpse and eating something grown in a test tube, it shouldn't be a tough sell," he said.