How to: grow a steak

Abattoirs are so yesterday. Test-tube meat is the way of the future — assuming consumers can stomach it.

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Ahh, the smell of a juicy rib-eye on the grill. Barbecue season is here, bringing tasty meat treats courtesy of the local butcher. But here's something else to chew on. Researchers are also working on culturing animal muscle in test tubes — then using a hi-tech bioreactor to “make” meat.

Vladimir Mironov, a research associate professor in the department of cell biology and anatomy at the Medical University of South Carolina, has been working since 2002 on a process that could be used to grow meat at home using a countertop meat-making device. Here's how it would work. Myoblasts, or immature cells that develop into skeletal muscle fibre, are harvested from animals and fused to a protein sphere-like scaffold, then added to a high-tech “cooking device” infused with growth medium to keep the cells alive. Several hours later, you'll have meat.

“Let's say tomorrow you want to have a hamburger with 30% lamb, 10% pork and 20% turkey, but you only want 3% fat. You would select all of these cells from the freezer, attach the cells to the steroids in the bioreactor and go to bed,” he says. “In the morning, you'll have a fresh, juicy hamburger.”

Researchers say cultured meat could reduce the environmental impact of conventional meat production and cut down on such risks to the food supply as mad cow disease. Sounds like a no-brainer? Not exactly. At present, it costs about US$10,000 to obtain enough growth medium to produce one kilogram of beef, making industrial-scale replication economically unfeasible. Another hurdle? The “ick factor” — test tube meat remains extremely unappetizing to the majority of individuals. Still, Mironov believes the long-term benefits could outweigh the negative public perception. Food for thought.