Micro Life Zone
Asked by spiffymonocle to Aimee, Kieran, Mat, Bridget on 23 Jun 2011. This question was also asked by aless.
Keywords: artificial, eat, food, make, meat, synthetic
Well we kind of already do. You can eat protein that’s “made” or which has come from some organism like fungi – you can buy that – has names like Quorn and stuff. So protein that’s not from animals. It’s in the supermarket.
We can also make synthetic protein in the lab, bit by bit. It’s actually one of the best developed techniques in chemistry (make it from scratch) and biology (get bacteria to make it for you). But the amounts would be very small – nothing you could eat as a meal.
But maybe you mean steak that’s really like steak – that has the same structure and taste, including all the fat and gristly bits and lip-smacking BBQ-tastic awesomeness. Is that it?
More difficult. Meat stuff has a lot of stuff in it. That’s one of the reasons it tastes so good. You have to remember we evolved to enjoy food that’s good for us. I enjoy meat because it’s a very good source of things I can use. My ancestors who ate meat did well. They grew strong. It’s not a necessary part of our diet, of course, but evolutionarily it must have helped my distant relatives. So that’s why it tastes good. If an alien landed on the earth it’s likely steak (even the really nice ones) would taste terrible to them.
So if you want to imitate that, you’d have to, like, grow a bit of a cow. Putting aside 1) that’s gross and 2) people wouldn’t buy it because it’s gross, you’re asking whether it’s possible.
I can see that it will be possible, yes. There are big advances being made in growing tissue, for good medical reasons. So, synthetic skin, muscle fibre, bone. This research is really very important so that we can repair bad injuries, and understand how our bodies do what they do on the most basic level.
I would predict that the technology would easily be used for making artificial meat. Nobody would buy it, I don’t think, which is the problem, but maybe I’m wrong. After all you wouldn’t have to kill an animal to eat the meat.
You want me to guess, don’t you?
Have you been watching ‘Better off Ted’? The scientists in that show were working on creating the perfect Lab-raised beef. Apparently the secret is pulsing it with electricity to simulate the movement of muscles. Won’t taste the same otherwise (by the way, the show is fictional).
I think we’re a long way off switching to totally synthetic meat. For that to happen I think it would either have to become too difficult to raise animals for food, or we would have to award so many rights to animals that we would no longer support killing them for food.
But that’s not what you’re asking, is it? Like Mat said, you can already buy fake-meat made from fungi (sounds appealing, right?) and there are even some restaurants which are totally vegetarian but do all sorts of unnatural things to tofu (make it look and taste like meat).
I think it would be possible in a a couple of years (more than 10, less than 50) to produce ‘meat’ in the Lab, making it up yourself but using the same chemicals as in an animal. But I don’t think it would be as good. It would be really hard to do all the things that nature does so well.
If you’re interested in synthetic biology, you could also check out the resources on the TechNyou website: http://technyou.edu.au/
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