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Victimless Vittles

Scientists are trying to grow meat in a lab dish so astronauts can eat steak in space. But it could also get vegetarians to start grilling their grub, since this type of meat can be considered "victimless." Researcher Vladimir Mironov hopes we can one day grow and cook our own food overnight in a special machine, just like a home bread maker.

Morris Benjaminson removed chunks of live muscle tissue from freshly killed goldfish and raised them in cell-culture fluid for a week. The tissue grew by as much as 14%, as the cells in the adult muscle divided to make more muscle cells. The main problem with this method is getting a constant supply of nutrients to the growing cell mass. In normal tissue fed by a blood supply, the capillaries can be no more than 200 microns apart or else the tissue dies.

Benjaminson's team also developed techniques for growing white and dark chicken muscle in the lab. Without a blood supply, the chicken meat grew for only two months before it was dead in the dish. He now wants to investigate mechanical or electrical methods of stimulating blood vessel growth.

You also need to establish a good blood supply if you want to grow thick slabs of streak-like muscle. Vladimir Mironov thinks the meat of the future will be closer to sausage or hamburger. He wants to experiment with growing myoblast cells on protein spheres suspended in growth medium that can be harvested and made into nuggets or patties. This type of cell can't grow unless it?s attached to something, so they'll be grown on food-shaped forms. Seafood is easier to grow than meat, because the myoblasts divide more easily.

In order to create the texture of a good steak, you not only need to grow the cells, you need to exercise them to build up the muscle, by stretching the myoblasts regularly. Rather than stimulating them with electricity or chemicals, Herman Vandenburgh has developed beads that change size when the temperature changes. When attached to the myoblasts, they force them to stretch and contract.

However, NASA has vetoed most of these proposals, saying it?s fine for astronauts to be vegetarians for now. "People are vegetarians and vegans on Earth and they do quite well," says NASA?s Thomas Dreschel. "It is more efficient to grow plants and feed on them. If astronauts really need essential amino acids, they can eat a pill."

But there?s still interest here on Earth. "Operations like McDonald's are interested in particular cuts of meat and efficiency," says Vern Anderson. "And you could select for leanness, or low cholesterol."

A fast food chain might want to get new customers by creating hamburgers for vegetarians. If no animal was farmed or slaughtered, would that make it ethically acceptable for them to eat meat? The cattle mutilations around the world may be an indication that all intelligent life consumes beef in one form or another.

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