Sausages without the pig

Predictions revisited

Food production by tissue engineering

This drawing by Nik Spencer shows an as-yet unrealised concept of Morris Benjaminson at Touro College, New York, It introduces the theme, rather than illustrating the work in the Netherlands noted below. The source is an article by Nicola Jones in Nature 468, 752-753 (2010) and you can see a larger and more legible version here http://www.nature.com/news/2010/101208/full/468752a/box/1.html

I’d still like to trace just where the idea originated. I know that In 1967 I was predicting “beef-steak without a cow” in The Environment Game, a book that visualized the land areas needed for agriculture being greatly reduced. In 1983, my contribution to The Future of a Troubled World, pictured “endless sausages growing by tissue culture of pork muscle”. But now I learn that Winston Churchill was talking about “chicken breast without the chicken” back in 1931. Where did he get it from? I’ll go on checking.

The Churchill quote comes in a segment in “Brave New World with Stephen Hawking” on Channel 4 (14 November). It follows up stories of the past few years about developments, most notably in the Netherlands, that are gradually making it a reality.

Here’s what I wrote in 1967:

Tissue culture itself is one of the most attractive ideas for artificial food production. It is no longer far-fetched to think that we may learn how to grow beef-steak, for example, without a cow. Tissue culture, the technique for growing cells outside the organism from which they originated, is already used for special purposes in research and also for growing viruses in the manufacture of vaccine; the advent of polio vaccine depended on the successful cultivation of kidney cells. That in turn followed the introduction of antibiotics to preserve the cultures from the ravages of stray micro-organisms.

When cells are cultured by present techniques they tend to lose their specialized character. By deliberately letting specialized cells such as kidney or muscle revert to the undifferentiated nature of a newly fertilized egg, we can use them in a quite arbitrary way for a variety of synthetic purposes. If, on the other hand, we want to grow beef-steak we must simulate the conditions governing the growth and arrangement of the cells in the live animal, otherwise we shall finish up with something like finely divided mince.

The Netherlands launched a well-funded multi-university project in 2005, and in the Hawking show, Mark Evans visits Mark Post at Maastricht University who shows him muscle fibres forming artifically. Post has some commerical backing and declares himself “reasonably confident” that next year (2012) he’ll make a hamburger. But with a price tag on the burger at 250,000 euros it’s “still in the scientific phase”.

Besides reducing the land areas for meat production, eventual success with “in-vitro meat” will mean that astronauts bound for Mars can still have their burgers, sausages and chicken breast.

Added 15 November.

Suspecting that J.B.S. Haldane might have been an early predictor of synthetic food, I’ve dug out this 1923 lecture http://www.marxists.org/archive/haldane/works/1920s/daedalus.htm But he visualizes synthesis from scratch. “Many of our foodstuffs, including the proteins, we shall probably build up from simpler sources such as coal and atmospheric nitrogen.”

A step in the extrapolation to tissue culture seems to have come from Haldane’s evolutionist chum, Julian Huxley, in fictional form in a short story, “The Tissue-Culture King” (1927). There the tissue of an African ruler was proliferated in that way – but for power, not for food. So where did Churchill get his rather precise prediction from? En route I’ve found the Churchill source. In Fifty Years Hence, In Thoughts and Adventures, Thornton Butterworth (London) 1932, Winston wrote:

“Fifty years hence we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.”

References

Nicola Jones, Nature, 468, 752-753, 2010

Nigel Calder, The Environment Game, Secker & Warburg (London) 1997

Ritchie Calder (ed), The Future of a Troubled World, Heinemann (London) 1983

Channel 4 (London), “Brave New World with Stephen Hawking,” Part 4, Environment, 14 November 2011. See http://www.channel4.com/programmes/brave-new-world-with-stephen-hawking/4od#3253407

6 Responses to Sausages without the pig

  1. Pascvaks says:

    Straight from the “Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil”, the human imagination. If we can dream it, it is possible. Eventually.

    PS: Science fiction seems to be playing holiday. I guess everyone wants hard core reality shows these days. What a waste.

  2. Dizzy Ringo says:

    As long as noone thinks of Soylent Green.

    • calderup says:

      Let’s hope not, Dizzy. I had to remind myself what the Solyent Green food was made of, in the 1973 movie. Originally plankton, later human corpses.
      Nigel

  3. Dylan says:

    Why bother culturing Big macs when you can just take the magical growth serum from stage 3 directly and cultivate your own cells!?

  4. alexjc38 says:

    Molecular nanotechnology could provide an eventual solution, I wonder, given that meat is basically made up of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen atoms, which could be stuck together by microscopic “assemblers” and then woven into proteins and perhaps “printed” into a huge variety of different forms and textures. Ultimately, machines might be able to replicate not only familiar types of meat such as beefsteak, chicken, veal, etc., but exotic types (where we have existing samples of DNA) such as woolly mammoth, and even completely new kinds of meat (and other foodstuffs) altogether. I think these are still very early days.

  5. OldUnixHead says:

    I first encountered an idea like this from the sci-fi novel “The Space Merchants” by Fred Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth, published ca. 1953, viz. “Chicken Little ™”.

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