Since its introduction to the public food scene over a century ago, the hamburger has gone through more phases than a temperamental teen.
After enduring the stigma of ‘fast-food fix’ for a lengthy stretch (thanks, fast-food chains), the burger gained some respect in the post-war period, finally surging in the late 90’s from its tainted, greasy image.
Today, burgers can range right up to fine dining levels. The ‘Fleurburger 5000’ from Hubert Keller’s restaurant in Las Vegas, made from a waygu beef patty topped with foie gras and truffle, is priced at – you guessed it – $5,000 USD.
But that’s not even the most expensive burger around. Not even close.
The Fleurburger 5000 is McDonald’s-level pricing compared to this $325,000 hamburger, created by Dr. Mark Post of the Netherlands through the use of stem cells.
FARM-RAISED MEAT VS. LAB-GROWN MEAT
While money doesn’t grow on trees, apparently, growing edible meat in a laboratory setting is perfectly reasonable (and possible).
The traditional burger creation atmosphere, filled with spatulas, oils, greasy aprons, and greasy chefs, are replaced by incubators filled with clear, plastic containers holding pinkish liquid. One burger technician has the tedious task of growing the tens of billions of cells needed for this six-figure burger, beginning with a specific cell found in cow necks.
Developing cultured meat isn’t entirely new, though Dr. Post has made double-patty sized strides in making meat from stem cells. Stem cells are precursor cells that possess the inimitable ability to differentiate into any cell type. Dr. Post utilizes stem cells, as well as other medical research involving growing tissues and organs (aka tissue engineering) to bring life to this Frankenburger.
A RECIPE FOR SUCCESS
You can’t call Dr. Post’s attention to burger detail lazy: his burger is made up of 20,000 tiny strips of cultured meat tissue. He’s done a few informal taste tests of his lab burger, and even sans fat, he said the tissue “tastes reasonably good.”
That rating beats most things you could potentially eat in a lab, believe us.
Having said that, fast-food chains and burger joints don’t need to fear competition in the market from food-loving scientists. The research alone is a hefty bite out of that $325K, which we can fairly ‘excessive’ for a simple hamburger, cool factor aside.
Plus, with burgers being associated with fast-food, Post’s burger is anything but fast – the creation of the patty is painfully slow. Cultivating the billions of cells for the patty involves myosatellite cells from a cow’s neck, which can produce new muscle tissues. Putting the cells in a growth medium – an ‘appetizing’ fetal calf serum – the cells are made to multiply and divide.
“We use the cell’s natural tendency to differentiate,” Dr. Post said. “We don’t do any magic.”
The cells then multiply, divide, and grow into a form of primitive muscle cells, or myotubes.
“And then they just start to put on protein,” Dr. Post continued.
From there, the cells ‘self-organize’ into contractile elements, and are then anchored into place using a technique Dr. Post didn’t disclose.
“We add anchor points so they can attach to something and start to develop tension,” he explained. “That is by far the biggest driver of protein synthesis, and they do that by themselves.”
The long and precise process results in…well, not a burger just yet. A tiny strip of tissue, roughly a half-inch long and a twenty-fifth of an inch in diameter is created – think of a short, pink rice noodle.
“The strips have to be thin because cells need to be close to a supply of nutrients to stay alive. One approach to making thicker tissues – to make a cultured steak rather than a hamburger, for instance – would require developing a network of channels, the equivalent of blood vessels, to carry nutrients to each cell.”
“MAN WHO INVENTED THE HAMBURGER WAS SMART; MAN WHO INVENTED THE CHEESEBURGER WAS A GENIUS.”
Even if Dr. Post or another stem cell researcher manages to reduce the price of the lab-grown burger by, say, a casual 100,000 times, fast-food chains can still still rest easy.
The most obvious problem to using this meat substitute is the lab-grown cells will always begin with the cells from a real, living animal. If cows and their precious neck cells were to go the way of the Dodo, so would Post’s ability to grow meat.
Other burger lovers (disguised as stem cell scientists), are already working on a way to make the stem cells reproduce indefinitely.
And if they’re unsuccessful in the quest for viable, cultured meats, Post can ‘relish’ in the idea that he raised the most expensive hamburger ever created.
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