Perpetually growing meat!

This is mildly interesting: scientists have modified muscle cells in culture so that they produce their own growth factors. This is a major cost reduction, because now you won’t need to constantly supplement your vat of muscle cells with a relatively expensive reagent.

Cellular agriculture – the production of meat from cells grown in bioreactors rather than harvested from farm animals – is taking leaps in technology that are making it a more viable option for the food industry. One such leap has now been made at the Tufts University Center for Cellular Agriculture (TUCCA), led by David Kaplan, Stern Family Professor of Engineering, in which researchers have created bovine (beef) muscle cells that produce their own growth factors, a step that can significantly cut costs of production.

Growth factors, whether used in laboratory experiments or for cultivated meat, bind to receptors on the cell surface and provide a signal for cells to grow and differentiate into mature cells of different types. In this study published in the journal Cell Reports Sustainability, researchers modified stem cells to produce their own fibroblast growth factor (FGF) which triggers the growth of skeletal muscle cells – the kind one finds in a steak or hamburger.

Keep in mind that this works for cultured meat cells, which is completely different from the artificial meat made from plants that you can buy in stores right now. I have a few reservations about it.

This is basically a tool to remove a regulatory limit on muscle growth. When this happens in vivo, we call it cancer. I suspect the marketing department will balk at labeling it “tumor meat”.

The technique amplifies one cell type. Edible meat has texture and is made up of a mix of cell types, fat and connective tissue. This is a way to make large quantities of something that is equivalent to ‘pink slime’ or, as the marketers call it, ‘lean finely textured beef.’ We already do this! I guess it’s a good thing to be able to produce large quantities of protein in the form of ‘pink slime’ more cheaply, and without the need to slaughter animals to do it.

Without a regulatory limit on growth, though, don’t be surprised if a news headline later announces that Boston has been eaten by a giant ever-growing blob of immortal meat.


  1. says

    I used to hope for vat grown meat. By now, plant based alternatives are not good, I’m pretty much “meh” . Please put more research into vegan cheese.

  2. raven says

    It was already done, long ago and done a lot better.

    This was Chicken Little from the Space Merchants by Pohl and Kornbluth. They fed a giant mass of chicken tissue with processed algae grown in towers by mirror focused sunlight.

    Vats, probably. Chicken Little, a huge mass of cultured chicken breast, was kept alive by algae skimmed by nearly-slave labor from multistory towers of ponds surrounded by mirrors to focus the sunlight onto the ponds.

    “Scum-skimming wasn’t hard to learn. You got up at dawn. You gulped a breakfast sliced not long ago from Chicken Little and washed it down with Coffiest. You put on your coveralls and took the cargo net up to your tier. In blazing noon from sunrise to sunset you walked your acres of shallow tanks crusted with algae. If you walked slowly, every thirty seconds or so you spotted a patch at maturity, bursting with yummy carbohydrates. You skimmed the patch with your skimmer and slung it down the well, where it would be baled, or processed into glucose to feed Chicken Little, who would be sliced and packed to feed people from Baffinland to Little America.”

    Technovelgy from The Space Merchants, by Frederik Pohl (w/CM Kornbluth).
    Published by St. Martin’s Press in 1952

  3. raven says

    Clifford Simak also did it better. They, Fishhook, brought back steak plants from another planet.


    He woke before morning light, when the birds first began to chirp, and made his way up the hill to the garden patch just below the house. He got three ears of corn, he dug into a hill of potatoes, he dug up a butcher plant and noted with some satisfaction that it had four steaks upon it.

  4. says

    When this happens in vivo, we call it cancer.

    I was kind of wondering about that.

    Is it plausible to worry about some agent from the manufacturing process leaking into the product and causing cancer in the humans consuming this stuff (or is it a given that stuff that messes with cow cell development will almost certainly not affect human cells [raise your hands if you want to take this bet])

  5. billseymour says

    When this happens in vivo, we call it cancer.

    That was my thought, too.  I’d want to see some high-quality studies of what such meat does to human cells before I’d want to partake.  (Although, IIUC, doing such studies on human subjects would likely raise ethical concerns.)

  6. Simon Fothergill says

    Shades of “The Chicken Heart” from the old time radio show “Lights Out”

  7. Pierce R. Butler says

    While eating such synthomeat may or may not induce known or new, hmmm, hypertrophism, potential lab boo-boos could have quite messy consequences. (The script is writing itself in your head now, isn’t it? Consider which type of cell source would provide amino acids etc in optimum proportions for human sustenance…)

    But don’t worry – the AIs maintaining the processors will take care of everything!

    Our foresighted capitalists are surely designing the factories in Wichita, Wuhan, Worcester, & Warsaw already…

  8. robro says

    OT: Liberty University has been assessed a $14 million fine for suppressing crime reports at the school violating Federal Education laws. According to one report the crimes involved sexual assaults. There’s also a $2 million assessment to implementing changes in their reporting.

  9. Pierce R. Butler says

    Re: robro @ # 14 – IIRC, Jerry Falwell Jr took a great interest in the Trump/DeVos “educational reform” agenda, particularly in the promise of reducing those pesky harassment-etc reporting requirements.

  10. John Morales says

    So the cost reduction is due to no longer needing to use fetal bovine serum in the growth medium, which is expensive since it’s extracted from the blood of cow fetuses.

    Definitely an improvement, both ethically and financially.

  11. John Morales says

    Re safety concerns and customer concerns, they are addressed in the paper:

    Similarly, considerations around genetic modifications (such as the inclusion of a mutated RasG12V oncogene) should be addressed from a regulatory and consumer standpoint. Indeed, there is still substantial negativity from many consumers toward genetically modified foods (GMOs), which in the case of engineered cell lines might exacerbate ambivalent attitudes toward cultured meat. [38]
    This is particularly true in Europe, where both consumer attitudes and regulations severely restrict the application of genetic engineering for food. [39]
    In the countries that regulate GMOs more favorably, there is also growing nuance around how different approaches to genetic engineering are regulated. For instance, the US differentiates transgenic gene insertions from cisgenic insertions, deletions, or base pair changes, which are considered “gene edited” and face fewer regulatory hurdles. [40]
    As both FGF2 upregulation and Ras mutation are possible using gene editing strategies such as targeted upregulation or mutation through CRISPR-Cas9, it might be favorable to utilize these approaches when engineering autocrine signaling into practice. There is precedent here for cultured meat, as the FDA recently gave preliminary approval to cultured meat produced with cells that were engineered through cisgenic overexpression of native genes.

    (heh… cisgenic overexpression)

  12. microraptor says

    This is not doing anything to change my mind that the best vegan foods are the ones that don’t pretend to be meat. If the choice is between tube meat or just eating beans and lentils, well, I already like beans and lentils.

  13. says

    Why does “perpetually growing meat” sound like something that belongs in my spam folder next to all of the ads for certain… products?

  14. Kagehi says

    Won’t stop clueless idiots from claiming it causes cancer, or will mutate you, or has “nanoparticles”, or… what ever.

    Also.. One word, from a certain video game’s scientist, whose research you run across, “Cystipigs”.

  15. gijoel says

    If only Michael Crichton were alive to warn us of the dangers of pink slime running amok and slaughtering people. Instead of, you know, susceptibility to food poisoning, pollution from mechanical farming, terrible taste, etc.


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