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Chicken Might Be the First Lab-Grown Meat to Make It to Your Grocery Store

'Clean Meat' is a new book by Paul Shapiro about the past, present, and future of lab-grown meat.

Paul Shapiro

Image: Wikipedia

Clean Meat tells the story of the past, present, and future of lab-grown meat (though the author prefers the terms “cultured meat,” or “clean meat”). As the vice president of policy engagement for The Humane Society of the United States, author Paul Shapiro has a vested interest in how this technology can transform our food systems. Motherboard has been covering the future of food for years and whether it’s a transformative success or an unrealistic goal, clean meat and the people trying to develop it will continue to be a part of that story.

Excerpted from Clean Meat by Paul Shapiro published by Simon & Schuster’s Gallery Books. All rights reserved.

“When I get up in the morning, I’m thinking about avian satellite cell culture. When I go to sleep, I’m thinking about avian satellite cell culture. It’s probable that I know more about these particular cells than anyone else on earth, and let me assure you: they’re easier to work with than cattle or other mammalian cells.”

So says Paul Mozdziak, poultry science professor at North Carolina State University. His department is officially named the Prestage Department of Poultry Science, after the Prestage family, which owns Prestage Farms, the turkey and pork giant headquartered in North Carolina and with production facilities across the United States.

Even though the American startups in the [lab-grown meat] space aren’t primarily focused on chicken, Mozdziak has devoted his entire career to proliferating chicken and turkey muscle cells. As a result, when [cruelty-free food company] Hampton Creek began its investigation into the cultured chicken game, Mozdziak was among the first people Fischer called.

The middle-aged professor had just received a six-figure grant from [cultured meat research company] New Harvest “for the purpose of creating chicken and turkey meat without animals,” and had brought his graduate student Marie Gibbons on board with the funds. Their goal is simple: to help establish an animal cell line that can be used as a common research tool by academic researchers at other universities. In essence, having avian “starter cells” available to any researcher who wants them would mean, according to Datar, that “dependence on slaughtered animals as an initial source for cells will be reduced.”

Mozdziak recalls culturing cells back in 1992 with some friends, exploring various meat science applications. As the cells continued growing in their modest lab, he joked to his colleagues, “Hey, if this works, you know we could grow meat in vitro?” They all laughed the idea off, thinking it so bizarre that no one would ever want to do it. And that was it for the next decade. Despite being surrounded by avian cell culture day in and day out, the scientist never contemplated a potential food application for his work. But the idea arose again in 2004.

The author sampling clean yogurt with Mark Post, the scientist who created the first lab-grown burger. Image: Perfect Day

“I was teaching a cell culture class and some of the students let their culture grow too long, producing actual chicken muscle in vitro. They didn’t really even think about the fact that they’d just produced ‘meat’ per se; it was just muscle to them. But I thought about it, and wondered just how much like chicken meat it’d look like if we just let it keep growing.”

The professor didn’t consider tasting it himself, and since there was no funding for such a project, he threw the little morsels of meat away.

“At the time I just couldn’t imagine that anyone would have an actual interest in doing something like that. How wrong I was!”

Now more than two decades after his initial thoughts on the topic, Mozdziak knows it’s no longer a laughing matter. In addition to his New Harvest grant and Hampton Creek knocking on his door to learn what he knows, he’s also had conversations with Tyson Foods and others he describes as having “a real interest in this kind of disruptive technology.”

Read more: How Long Until We Can Grow Thanksgiving Turkeys in a Lab?

Part of his message to these companies is that the focus on growing cattle and pig muscle cells to produce beef and pork is noble, but just from a technological standpoint, Mozdziak argues that chicken and turkey cells are much easier to work with.

“First things first, they grow a lot better in culture than mammalian cells do. They have better plasticity—you can get them to do what you want much more easily.”

Interestingly, he’s not sure why, but Mozdziak points out that with mammals, it’s easier to work with cells biopsied from younger animals, whereas with birds, a more mature animal has better satellite cells with which to start. There are key innovations in cell culture the professor thinks will inevitably occur in the next couple of years, like not using any antibiotics in the culture, and going serum-free. But the bigger issue he sees is simply setting up immortal cell lines so that other researchers can more easily start solving the big problems.

When asked how his colleagues at the Prestage Department of Poultry Science react to the fact that his work could put poultry farmers out of business if he’s successful, Mozdziak shrugs his shoulders with a smile. “They really think of me more as a biologist than a poultry scientist, and I’m not sure how many of them are that familiar with what I’m doing yet. But those who do know about it think it’s really cool.”

Already, Mozdziak’s New Harvest grant has yielded big gains. He used the funds to support Gibbons in trying her hand at something no one had ever done before: culturing turkey meat. For Gibbons, a physiology graduate student and lifelong animal advocate, this project was a dream come true. Sporting an oxytocin molecule necklace and a multilingual “love” tattoo, she explains how she’s always been crazy about animals.

“I was raised on a small family farm in North Carolina, a little over an hour away from the largest slaughterhouse in the world. Unlike most farms however, all of my family’s animals were raised for pets, not profit. I loved my chickens and turkeys just as much as I loved my dogs and horses, and I still do!”

As a teenager, she learned about the animal welfare and environmental concerns brought about by animal agribusiness, leading her to write off all animal products for good. Given her love for animals, as well as an interest in science, Gibbons decided to attend North Carolina State University and pursue a degree in veterinary medicine.

“To be honest, I was never quite sure if veterinary work was right for me. But I loved animals, and I loved science, so it seemed like the best option.”

In preparation for her veterinary studies, Gibbons began working with a large animal veterinarian, traveling around to local farms and treating a variety of different species.

“Working on these small family farms, the majority of which were organic and even certified by animal welfare groups, really opened my eyes to the differences in treatment between farm and companion animals. Just because these animals were free to graze in a pasture doesn’t mean they weren’t castrated, dehorned, and branded, usually without pain medicine or veterinary supervision.”

Gibbons makes a key point. Advocates for a return to small-scale, organic animal agriculture often paint a picture of the “good old days” before factory farming, and set up a dichotomy between big versus small ag, with of course big being bad and small all but romanticized as the embodiment of human harmony with nature. The reality is quite different, with many abuses, like those enumerated by Gibbons, being prevalent even before factory farming ever became the norm.

And the problems for wildlife near pastured farm animals can be substantial, too. Ranchers whose cattle spend their time grazing are often those spearheading the lobbying efforts for shooting wolves in the United States and for rounding up wild horses. Many of them simply don’t want predators near their cattle or competitors for grass on the federal land their cattle occupy. It’s not that pasturing animals isn’t better than keeping them locked on factory farms—it’s immensely better for the animals—but it would be a mistake to conclude that local, organic animal production is free from animal welfare concerns.

Gibbons became convinced that she didn’t want to be a veterinarian after being called on as a student to perform an eye removal surgery on a fully conscious cow at a pasture-based operation. “I decided that as a veterinarian, I could help thousands of animals by promoting humane treatment and educating farmers about proper veterinary care. But as a cultured-meat scientist, I could prevent the suffering of billions of animals by sparing them an awful existence.”

Working with Mozdziak, in late 2016, Gibbons grew the first-ever cultured turkey nugget, and for only $19,000 (a giveaway compared to [scientist Mark] Post’s $330,000 burger [in 2013]). Perhaps even more impressive is that Gibbons can send any academic scientist a vial of her starter cells—named the MG1 line after her initials—and they’d be able to grow their own turkey nuggets in just two weeks. For perspective, turkeys on factory farms typically take fourteen to nineteen weeks to reach slaughter weight.

If the cells were able to proliferate in optimum conditions, the potential amount of meat they could produce would be astronomical. Gibbons performed a biopsy by removing a piece of turkey muscle the size of a sesame seed, which contained roughly twelve million satellite cells. After some simple calculations and measurements, she and Mozdziak found that with sufficient production capacity, there’d be no reason a single biopsy of that size couldn’t theoretically produce enough turkey muscle to supply the current global annual meat
demand (if we were content to eat no meat other than turkey) for more than two thousand years.

"You think you’re going to travel the cosmos carrying Noah’s Ark with you? It ain’t happening.”

To put it another way, when MIT Technology Review featured Mozdziak and Gibbons’s work in late 2016, it reported, “In theory, the growth potential is enormous. Assuming unlimited nutrients and room to grow, a single satellite cell from one single turkey can undergo seventy-five generations of division during three months. That means one cell could turn into enough muscle to manufacture over twenty trillion turkey nuggets.”

Gibbons smiles thinking of the potential for her work. “Of course, there’s still an awful lot to be done in order to optimize this system. It’s not like I have a few billion tons of cultured turkey meat in a freezer somewhere.”

She lists the barriers still facing her work, including finding a sustainable animal-free medium (which she believes is inevitable in the near-term), adapting the cells to bioreactor culture, and figuring out how to scale up production systems. And then there’s the issue of what to call the final product.

“I for one am a fan of calling it my bootleg turkey leg!” Gibbons adds jokingly.

To Gibbons, efficient cultured-nugget production could lead to endless possibilities. She’s excited about the positive impact clean meat will have on farm animals, but even more broadly on the entire animal kingdom as a whole. “Once we stop relying on animals for food and profit, I believe that society will start treating all animals with more respect.”

Gibbons’s work has generated a lot of headlines and certainly earned the respect of the Hampton Creek R-and-D team that reached out to them to see if they might be able to collaborate. But the MG1 line is owned by NCSU and cannot be used by a for-profit company without a license (typically for a hefty upfront fee or royalties). Until that happens, at least, her work will remain in the realm of academia. For Mozdziak, this is just the next step in improving efficiency, which poultry scientists have been working on for generations now.

But his argument goes far beyond efficiency gains, and appeals to the sci-fi fantasies of so many of his colleagues in the biotech sector. “One thing they always agree with me on is that this is the only way we’re going to feed long-term astronauts with meat. You think you’re going to travel the cosmos carrying Noah’s Ark with you? It ain’t happening.”

Protein needs of long-distance astronauts may not be at the top of the list of problems humanity faces right now, but it’s surely on the mind of some futurists. “If human space colonizers want meat, it’s almost certainly coming from some type of reactor they’ll be carrying on board, and this research is the beginning of making that happen.”

Yet the reality remains: We’ll know long before humans are colonizing the solar system if Project Jake is a success for Hampton Creek. And if it is, the poultry farmers supplying Prestage, Pilgrim’s Pride, and other big agribusinesses will indeed find themselves out of luck. As the New Harvest press release announcing its funding of this NCSU work points out, “the outcome of the project will greatly reduce the numbers of chickens and turkeys on which humans rely for meat.”