Five Animal Products Scientists Can Now Grow In a Lab

In early experiments, scientists are growing meat in vitro and bioengineering yeast for dairy

Lab food main image
Lab-grown beef—it could be dinner. © Tek Image/Science Photo Library/Corbis

In August 2013, scientists in London prepped, cooked and tasted a hamburger in front of an expectant crowd of media and food critics. After the demonstration, the Guardian deemed the burger a milestone that could "herald a future free from needless animal suffering and polluting factory farms."

That's because this particular burger didn't come from a cow—at least not in the traditional sense. The burger, or at least the meat that made the burger, was grown in a lab, from bovine stem cells.

In vitro meat might be the most well-known example of a post-animal foodscape, but it's not the only example. Here are a few ways scientists are trying to recreate your favorite animal-based products—from milk to cheese, even leather—in a lab. 

Lab-Grown Beef

Arguably the most recognizable version of synthetically created animal products is lab-grown beef. For the meat to become a reality, it took years of research in tissue engineering by Mark Post, a biologist at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands. To create the burger, Post and his colleagues used muscle stem cells from a cow, which they then bathed in a culturing solution of fetal calf serum to encourage the cells to grow and differentiate. The cells grew into veritable cow muscle cells, some 40 billion of them making 20,000 strips of meat that the biologists were abel to mold into a burger patty. The patty cost $330,000 to produce.

Some, including Post, lauded the burger as the first step toward a more sustainable future, where meat would come from labs instead of industrial meat factories and farms. That future, however, is a ways away. Post estimated that it could take up to 20 years for in vitro meat to become a commercially viable option for everyone.

Lab-Grown Milk

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(Muffri)

Milk is a ubiquitous part of the American food system, but it can be difficult to meet demands for it while still respecting animal welfare. According to a 2013 story in Forbes, most of America's dairy milk comes from cows that have undergone forced impregnation and have been prematurely separated from their calves, something that the article maintains causes the cows pain both physical and emotional. Industrial milk production can also be hard on the environment; making a liter of milk takes about 1,000 liters of water

People turning away from cow milk—for health or ethical reasons—has caused the proliferation of non-dairy substitutes, such as soy and almond milk. But as any lactose intolerant consumer can attest, none of these non-dairy alternatives quite match the taste of dairy milk. So how do you reproduce the taste and look of milk in the lab?

San Francisco-based bioengineers Perumal Gandhi and Ryan Pandya think they've found the answer in a test-tube milk they call Muufri (get it? "Moo free."). Milk is an ideal candidate to make synthetically, Pandya told Gizmag in October, because its structure is fairly simple. Milk is mostly water and contains less than 20 components.

To make milk in a lab, Pandya and Gandhi recreate six key proteins, which give the milk its structure, and eight fatty acids, responsible for the beverage's richness and flavor. Instead of getting these proteins and acids from a non-dairy substitute, like almonds, they get them from bioengineering yeast to reproduce proteins found in dairy milk. The resulting product is "just like animal-produced milk," Muufri founders told Business Insider. Because Pandya and Gandhi can tweak the yeast at the molecular level, they hope to be able to engineer milk that is actually healthier—for instance, milk that includes a sugar other than lactose, which so many find hard to digest, or that lacks the saturated fat of most dairy. The pair hopes to be able to sell Muufri throughout California by 2017.

Lab-Grown Cheese

The scientists behind Real Vegan Cheese agree that most imitators hardly hold a candle to cheese, and they want to change that, by making completely vegan cheese in a lab—from milk proteins. Their plan is to inject synthetically made cow DNA (so it really is vegan cheese) into yeast, so that it produces casein, a protein found in cows' milk. Then, the engineers take the casein, mix it with water, vegetable butter and vegan sugar (no lactose). The milk-substitute, in theory, can be used to make cheese the same way real-milk cheese is made, so the potential for cheese substitutes is limited only by the vegan cheesemonger's imagination. It may be awhile before you can taste Real Vegan Cheese though, as the project is still in its research and development phase.

Lab-Grown Leather

For scientists at Modern Meadow, engineering animal tissue isn't just a way to fill our plates—it's also a way to put clothes on our backs. The Brooklyn-based company recently raised $10 million to grow leather, as a means of keeping up with the demand for leather goods without putting undue strain on animals or the environment.

Unlike lab-grown meat, Modern Meadow hopes to recreate the look and feel of leather without using fetal calf serum to stimulate cell growth. Instead, they extract cells from animals by conducting punch biopsies, and use a bioreactor, or some other kind of growth apparatus, to encourage the cells to proliferate. They then allow the cells to fuse together in layers (to recreate the layers found in skin) through a method of 3D bioprinting. Eventually, as the cells grow in a bioreactor, muscle and fat can be harvested for meat, while skin tissue is allowed to harden into hide. Because the tissue cells grow without hair or an outer skin, lab-grown leather doesn't require many of the toxic chemicals used in traditional tanning. It takes the company about one and a half months to create one square foot of leather.

While Modern Meadow is interested in creating lab-grown beef, fish and chicken, the group estimates that its leather will be ready for commercial production and sale long before its meat products.

Lab-Grown Fish

More than a decade before Post and his colleagues introduced a lab-grown burger on a London stage, NASA devised a way to grow fish in a lab. The agency hoped to provide astronauts with a source of protein on long-haul space flights (like an eventual trip to Mars), when dealing with things like biological waste or slaughter would be especially tricky. As with lab-grown beef, NASA scientists used fetal cow serum to coax new fish cells into growing on a piece of flesh from a large goldfish. In the experiment, the fish increased in size by 16 percent. Still, while NASA debuted the technique in 2002, we've yet to see lab-grown fish on the market.