The world's first lab-grown burger

November 28, 2014

It was incredible, or, as he says himself, "From the very beginning, I was fascinated by the concept of creating meat in a laboratory. That actually sounds pretty gruesome but, of course, it isn't. It is what it is. Perhaps it's also the reason why I was approached by our sponsor Sergey Brin, (co-founder of Google)."

With the infrastructure of Chemelot and Health Campus, Limburg offers the perfect facilities for a researcher like Post: fast exchange of knowledge, co-operation between all sorts of scientific disciplines, and short lines of communication. That's why he opted for Maastricht. And there they also have a better feeling for the medical aspects of such research.

New research always starts with the awareness that we cannot do something, cannot achieve something, and cannot know something. That problem is actually what drives a good idea. Everything is possible. Away with conventions! Use your problems as a reason for making the impossible possible! An impossibility that can be overcome only through the combination of creativity and science and belief in this combination.

The Power of Impossibility

Or the explosive power that is released if we succeed in overcoming the Impossibility.

I suddenly found myself standing in front of his door. And him. Mark Post, Professor of Vascular Physiology at Maastricht University, recently known mostly as a hamburger grower.

I promised that this would be my first and last corny joke. He smiled reassuringly. It was so charming a smile that he was suddenly the absolute antithesis of everything that had just been going through my mind. He was completely the opposite of the man that fits bodies together.

My first question had been well considered and many times rehearsed: "Can you believe it? Because you must admit that it's unbelievable." He looked a bit dumbfounded but smiled in a relaxed way.

How did it start? What did it start with? What was the problem? The greatest inventions almost always start with a big problem.

Mark Post continued to smile calmly. He was clearly not a man to get upset when presented with an impossibility.

A series of problems

He very calmly began to describe a whole series of problems. 

  • The problem of greenhouse gases. The problem that livestock rearing is responsible for 18 per cent of these emissions.
  • The problem that the meat processing industry is the biggest user of antibiotics in the world.
  • The problem that, as we know already, the demand for meat will double worldwide, particularly in the emerging economies.
  • The problem of deforestation. 
  • The problem of the impact of land use on biodiversity.
  • The problem that eight per cent of the water in the world goes to our livestock while more than a billion people have no normal access to clean drinking water.

Problems, problems and even more problems.
Concerns, concerns and even more concerns.
All voiced from behind that extremely friendly smile.

Intentionally growing fat tissue

"Yes, it was certainly a great challenge," he continues, still smiling. "We're still curious about what is possible ourselves. We're now working on the color and the texture, and further research is needed into juiciness. We can influence these by growing fat tissue and adding it in the right proportion. After that, we'll have to start production."

We talk more about collaboration in Maastricht University. About the short lines of communication and the long-term partnerships. About the horrified reaction in the international press, the headlines about the "Frankenburger" and so on. And his calm smile sweeps it all away.

Pure muscle

"What we make here is pure muscle – no more and no less. We can attach a muscle cell to something on one side, such as the edge of a petri dish, and to more of these cells on the other side. The muscle cells do what they were designed to do: they perform. They're programmed to stretch and hold on to the muscle cell next to them.

This could be the answer to the entire food problem. And a host of other problems too. But for the time being, the question is 'what do we do next'? The beef in the petri dish has to be fed. We have shown proof of concept but that means that we are about as far as the new BMW concept car. So it will still take a lot of time and research before you can just grow your own meat in your own breeding machine."

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Mark Post - Cultured Beef