BY ARYN BAKER/MAASTRICHT, Time
The cows in Farmer John’s pasture lead an idyllic life. They roam through tree-shaded meadows, tearing up mouthfuls of clover while nursing their calves in tranquility.
Tawny brown, compact and muscular, they are Limousins, a breed known for the quality of its meat and much sought-after by the high-end restaurants and butchers in the nearby food mecca of Maastricht, in the southernmost province of the Netherlands. In a year or two, meat from these dozen cows could end up on the plates of Maastricht’s better-known restaurants, but the cows themselves are not headed for the slaughterhouse. Instead, every few months, a veterinarian equipped with little more than a topical anesthetic and a scalpel will remove a peppercorn-size sample of muscle from their flanks, stitch up the tiny incision and send the cows back to their pasture.
The biopsies, meanwhile, will be dropped off at a lab in a nondescript warehouse in Maastricht’s industrial quarter, five miles away, where, when I visit in July, cellular biologist Johanna Melke is already working on samples sent in a few days prior. She swirls a flask full of a clear liquid flecked with white filaments—stem cells isolated from the biopsy and fed on a nutrient-dense growth medium. In a few days, the filaments will thicken into tubes that look something like short strands of spaghetti. “This is fat,” says Melke proudly. “Fat is really important. Without fat, meat doesn’t taste as good.”
On the opposite side of the building, other scientists are replicating the process with muscle cells. Like the fat filaments, the lean muscle cells will be transferred to large bioreactors—temperature- and pressure-controlled steel vessels—where, bathed in a nutrient broth optimized for cell multiplication, they will continue to grow. Once they finish the proliferation stage, the fat and the muscle tissue will be sieved out of their separate vats and reunited into a product resembling ground hamburger meat, with the exact same genetic code as the cows in Farmer John’s pasture. (The farmer has asked to go by his first name only, in order to protect his cows, and his farm, from too much media attention.)
That final product, identical to the ground beef you are used to buying in the grocery store in every way but for the fact that it was grown in a reactor instead of coming from a butchered cow, is the result of years of research, and could help solve one of the biggest conundrums of our era: how to feed a growing global population without increasing the greenhouse-gas emissions that are heating our planet past the point of sustainability. “What we do to cows, it’s terrible,” says Melke, shaking her head. “What cows do to the planet when we farm them for meat? It’s even worse. But people want to eat meat. This is how we solve the problem.”
When it comes to the importance of fat in the final product, Melke admits to a slight bias. She is a senior scientist on the Fat Team, a small group of specialists within the larger scientific ecosystem of Mosa Meat, the Maastricht-based startup whose founders introduced the first hamburger grown from stem cells to the world eight years ago. That burger cost $330,000 to produce, and now Melke’s Fat Team is working with the Muscle Team, the (stem cell) Isolation Team and the Scale Team, among others, to bring what they call cell-cultivated meat to market at an affordable price.
They are not the only ones. More than 70 other startups around the world are courting investors in a race to deliver lab-grown versions of beef, chicken, pork, duck, tuna, foie gras, shrimp, kangaroo and even mouse (for cat treats) to market. Competition is fierce, and few companies have allowed journalists in for fear of risks to intellectual property. Mosa Meat granted TIME exclusive access to its labs and scientists so the process can be better understood by the general public.
Click here to read the full article on Time.