The New White Meat: Raising Chicken Nuggets in a Petri Dish

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When NASA put out a call for scientists to help develop food sources for astronauts, the agency was mostly thinking vegetables. Biologist Morris Benjaminson had another idea. “Logically,” he says, “it occurred to me that if you can grow plants in space, then why can’t you do it with meat?” It wasn’t long before he and his colleagues demonstrated that live skeletal muscle extracted from a goldfish would grow larger if bathed in a nutrient-rich serum. Now a nonprofit research consortium called New Harvest is advocating for the use of lab-grown fish, chicken, and pork on Earth. In vitro meat would reduce the demand for farm animals, slowing the spread of diseases like avian influenza and minimizing the meat industry’s enormous environmental footprint, says Jason Matheny, a New Harvest co-founder and doctoral student in public health at Johns Hopkins University. Researchers can also guarantee that in vitro meat is free of harmful bacteria and manipulate its nutritional content. “You could replace the bad fats with good fats,” Matheny says. “You could have a hamburger that has the fat profile of salmon or an avocado.”

Because of federal regulations, there have been no official taste tests of lab meat, but Matheny admits that there are some researchers “who, when you get them drunk, will admit to eating the stuff.” In vitro meat may appear on the market in as few as five years, primarily in processed products like hamburgers and chicken nuggets. The biggest challenge, Matheny says, is scaling up the manufacture of bioengineered meat and bringing the cost down. (Last year, PETA announced that it would award $1 million to anyone who developed a commercially viable technique for producing lab-grown chicken.) Researchers have the know-how to produce a petri-dish chicken nugget, but it’s expensive. “If there were a McDonald’s for millionaires,” Matheny says, “it would probably already be on the menu.”

The New White Meat: Raising Chicken Nuggets in a […]