CHARLESTON, South Carolina - In a small laboratory on an upper floor of the basic science building at the Medical University of South Carolina, Vladimir Mironov, M.D., Ph.D., has been working for a decade to grow meat.
A developmental biologist and tissue engineer, Dr. Mironov, 56, is one of only a few scientists worldwide involved in bioengineering "cultured" meat.
It's a product he believes could help solve future global food crises resulting from shrinking amounts of land available for growing meat the old-fashioned way ... on the hoof.
Growth of "in-vitro" or cultured meat is also under way in the Netherlands, Mironov told Reuters in an interview, but in the United States, it is science in search of funding and demand.
The new National Institute of Food and Agriculture, part of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, won't fund it, the National Institutes of Health won't fund it, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration funded it only briefly, Mironov said.
"It's classic disruptive technology," Mironov said. "Bringing any new technology on the market, average, costs $1 billion. We don't even have $1 million."
Director of the Advanced Tissue Biofabrication Center in the Department of Regenerative Medicine and Cell Biology at the medical university, Mironov now primarily conducts research on tissue engineering, or growing, of human organs.
"There's a yuck factor when people find out meat is grown in a lab. They don't like to associate technology with food," said Nicholas Genovese, 32, a visiting scholar in cancer cell biology working under a People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals three-year grant to run Dr. Mironov's meat-growing lab.
"But there are a lot of products that we eat today that are considered natural that are produced in a similar manner," Genovese said.
"There's yogurt, which is cultured yeast. You have wine production and beer production. These were not produced in laboratories. Society has accepted these products."
If wine is produced in winery, beer in a brewery and bread in a bakery, where are you going to grow cultured meat?
In a "carnery," if Mironov has his way. That is the name he has given future production facilities.
He envisions football field-sized buildings filled with large bioreactors, or bioreactors the size of a coffee machine in grocery stores, to manufacture what he calls "charlem" — "Charleston engineered meat."
"It will be functional, natural, designed food," Mironov said. "How do you want it to taste? You want a little bit of fat, you want pork, you want lamb? We design exactly what you want. We can design texture.
"I believe we can do it without genes. But there is no evidence that if you add genes the quality of food will somehow suffer. Genetically modified food is already normal practice and nobody dies."
Dr. Mironov has taken myoblasts — embryonic cells that develop into muscle tissue — from turkey and bathed them in a nutrient bath of bovine serum on a scaffold made of chitosan (a common polymer found in nature) to grow animal skeletal muscle tissue. But how do you get that juicy, meaty quality?
Genovese said scientists want to add fat. And adding a vascular system so that interior cells can receive oxygen will enable the growth of steak, say, instead of just thin strips of muscle tissue.
Cultured meat could eventually become cheaper than what Genovese called the heavily subsidized production of farm meat, he said, and if the public accepts cultured meat, the future holds benefits.
"Thirty percent of the earth's land surface area is associated with producing animal protein on farms," Genovese said.
"Animals require between 3 and 8 pounds of nutrient to make 1 pound of meat. It's fairly inefficient. Animals consume food and produce waste. Cultured meat doesn't have a digestive system.
"Further out, if we have interplanetary exploration, people will need to produce food in space and you can't take a cow with you.
"We have to look to these ideas in order to progress. Otherwise, we stay static. I mean, 15 years ago who could have imagined the iPhone?"
(Editing by Jerry Norton)