Three-course specials at The House Of Longpig

Paul Raven @ 09-07-2010

The lines between futurism, architecture and conceptual art continue to blur and fade (if they ever existed anywhere other than our own minds, that is); a chap called Mitchell Joachim is working on making a house from meat. Yes, a house. Made – grown, to be more precise – from in vitro tissue culture. A meat house. House made of meat. [image ganked from INHABITAT]

The In Vitro Habitat... AKA "meat house"

While we’re talking about in vitro meat, Wired UK turned over the mic to Warren Ellis, as they do on a monthly basis, and he decided to talk about cannibalism. Fans of Ellis’ reputation-making series Transmetropolitan will remember that The City was full of places where you could eat pretty much anything, all the way up (or is it down?) to cultured human flesh, and that riff gets echoed here:

… the technology is there to start generating human meat without the dubious ethical intervention of human slaughter. Which is harder than you’d think, and the artificial meat version wouldn’t have any Rohypnol precipitate in its cell structure. If there’s no human shoe-beasts involved in the butchery, where’s the problem? Show me the ethical hurdles to ordering a cultured manburger.

I demand that science do its job and allow us all to indulge in a consumer experiment: are humans the most delicious meat of all? Furthermore, I think there’s an easy way to access more funding for this goal: celebrity cell donation.

Of course, Uncle Warren is being ironic here, and has no real interest in eating human flesh, cultured or otherwise.


Pain-free animals and ethical carnivorism

Paul Raven @ 03-09-2009

cowsAll but the most ardent and uncaring carnivores among us would probably agree that factory farming is a cruel and unpleasant lifestyle for the animals that eventually become our food. There are numerous answers to this ethical dilemma (aside from vegetarianism, of course), the newest of which is the suggestion that livestock be genetically re-engineered so that they don’t feel pain:

“If we can’t do away with factory farming, we should at least take steps to minimise the amount of suffering that is caused,” says Adam Shriver, a philosopher at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri. In a provocative paper published this month, Shriver contends that genetically engineered pain-free animals are the most acceptable alternative. “I’m offering a solution where you could still eat meat but avoid animal suffering.”


Performing brain surgery on livestock wouldn’t be feasible on an industrial scale. Livestock would have to be genetically engineered to be pain-free for it to be profitable.

Zhou-Feng Chen, a neuroscientist at Washington University in St Louis and colleagues are identifying the genes that regulate affective pain. Already, they have engineered mice that lack two enzymes which help neuron-to-neuron communication in the ACC. When the team injected a noxious, painful chemical into their paws, the mice licked them only briefly. In contrast, normal mice continued to do so for hours afterwards. This suggests that livestock could be spared persistent, nagging pain.

Now, I’m no militant animal rights campaigner, but Shriver’s suggestion sounds like aside-stepping of the issue rather than a solution. The ethical problem is the way we farm animals, and their suffering is a function thereof; removing their ability to feel pain would be like treating the symptoms of a disease rather than aiming to cure the disease itself, and the ethics of such a sweeping piece of genetic engineering is a whole new can of worms in and of itself. It certainly wouldn’t buy off my own guilt about factory farming… and it seems that I’m not the only one:

“Large farms have become an environmental disaster,” agrees Alan Goldberg at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. They generate enormous amounts of waste and greenhouse gases and breed antibiotic resistance. “I think factory farms have to go, it’s that simple.”

Goldberg also contends that public attitudes may make pain-free livestock a non-starter. He and colleague Renee Gardner conducted an online survey on the use of pain-free animals in research and found little public support, even among researchers who experiment on animals.

Even Shriver (apparently a life-long vegetarian himself) agrees that the better option is to abolish factory farming entirely, which makes me wonder whether his suggestion is in fact a form of deliberately provocative rhetorical gambit. Personally, I think that vat-grown meat is the best long-term solution… as well as the only one that has a chance of scaling in response to global consumption patterns. [image by law_kevan]

Your vat-grown burger will be ready in a decade, sir

Paul Raven @ 01-08-2009

brunch burgerWe’ve mentioned the potential of vat-grown meat here before, but I thought it worth bringing up again in light of an article at Wired UK that goes into more technical detail about the processes involved in growing cultured muscle for human consumption. [image by Marshall Astor]

“We’re developing a very simplified version of what we know as meat,” he explains. “The cells are grown in this dish within a growing medium and this unit is where they receive the electrical stimulation. These electrodes ensure there is an electrical current – about 1Hz – passing through the cells. To make these skeletal cells develop into muscle, they need to be constantly exercised, just like in the body.” This, he explains, is one of the scientific hurdles for in vitro meat that has not yet been fully addressed. “We can convert stem cells into skeletal muscle cells; however, turning them into trained skeletal muscle appears to be a little harder.”

They seem pretty confident about having a commercially viable product within a decade or so… but it’s probably going to delight the tastebuds about as much as the food you get on budget airlines:

“I don’t think we will spend a whole lot of time trying to replicate the taste of meat, though – that will be artificially added later. The food industry is already expert at enhancing taste – creating the right texture is the Holy Grail.”

Why complicate matters, adds Post, when you can nurture skeletal muscles to produce a simple, lean meat? Strip away the connective tissue, blood vessels and fat – as many of us do when we prepare a chicken breast prior to cooking it – and you’re left with a lean fillet of meat which consists of, roughly, 75 per cent water, 20 per cent protein and three per cent fat. Post believes that we are not too far away from producing this kind of meat on a commercial scale – ten years, perhaps. Convincing in vitro steaks and chops are probably a few decades away.

I guess the problem here is that the stuff will never sell until it comes out cheaper than real off-the-hoof meat. Once that price point is reached, however, I suspect the take-up rate will skyrocket.

Meat futures redux – just leave the brains out

Paul Raven @ 18-04-2008

BullThe best thing about science is the same as the best thing about science fiction – it’s the lively debates and differing opinions. The vat-grown meat story got some fairly wide coverage beyond science fictional circles, so here’s legendary biology-blogger PZ “Pharyngula” Myers’ angle on the issue:

“The more I think about it, the more I think people are going at it backwards. We shouldn’t be thinking about building muscle from the cells up, to create a purified system to produce meat for the market, we should be going the other way, starting with self-sustaining meat producers and genetically paring away the less commercially viable bits, like the brain. Instead of test-tube meat, we should be working on more efficient organisms that generate muscle tissue with the properties we want.”

OK, now I’m fairly easy with the idea of eating meat that’s just a lump of stuff grown in a petri-dish. But animals engineered to not have a nervous sytem? That really is a pretty queasy thought, even though I can see why (rationally) it shouldn’t be. [image by TwoBlueDay]

All hail the New Flesh – in-vitro meat on sale within a decade

Paul Raven @ 15-04-2008

Blue steakHere’s another item to add to the list of science fictional ideas that are edging close to becoming a reality – in-vitro (or “vat-grown”) meat could be sat on supermarket shelves within ten years.

The technology is already tried and tested, it’s just a case of waiting for the economic cost to become competitive … which, given the sharp (and probably continuing) rise in global food prices, may come sooner than anyone would like to think. [image by Yandle]

I’ve spoken to friends about in-vitro meat and their reaction has usually been disgust. I’m guessing that the economics will change that attitude more effectively than any amount of rational discussion – principles tend to be the first thing that gets eaten when someone’s stomach is empty, and we’re already consuming meat from cloned livestock.

And after all, it’s not quite the same as Soylent Green. Would you move to eating in-vitro meat right now if it cost less than the real thing?

[And we’re back to song lyric references in headlines … 😉 ]