“Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.”
For those perhaps not as geekishly inclined as I am, the above quote is a Star Trek reference.
One of the greatest features of the 24th century as depicted in the iconic TV series, subsequent spin-off franchises and now a slew of feature films is the “replicator.”
We are a long way off from a machine you can talk to that will instantly synthesize whatever you have a hankering for, but last week science took a step in that direction.
On Monday, two food critics in London, England taste-tested the first laboratory-grown hamburger.
The meat, cultured from stem cells harvested from living cows is being hailed as everything from a stunning breakthrough to an abomination.
The verdict from the two Guinea pigs?
Tastes like meat.
That doesn’t surprise me all that much, since it is meat. It is meat that was produced in an unconventional way, but meat nonetheless.
Apparently it was not perfect, however.
The first critic, Hanni Ruetzler thought it wasn’t juicy enough. Josh Schonwald, the other tester, missed the fat.
To Mark Post, the scientist behind the burger, these are mere details. He has his proof of concept. Growing meat in a lab works.
The project has attracted praise and criticism, of course.
Some vegetarian groups and animal welfare organizations feel it addresses their concerns about the ethical treatment of animals.
Environmentalists are divided. On the one hand, with growing demand for meat on a global scale, the technology could reduce the strain on land, water and energy resources.
Conversely, some environmentalists believe technological solutions such as lab-produced meat and genetically engineered crops treat the symptoms of world hunger instead of addressing the causes.
The political debate notwithstanding, the visceral reaction of consumers may be the greatest hurdle.
Perhaps in places where people struggle with hunger, the issue may be moot, but for the affluent industrialized world, just the thought of something grown in a laboratory is anathema to many people.
The researchers think people will get over that.
“A lot of people consider lab-grown meat repulsive at first,” said Helen Breewood, who works with Post. “But if they consider what goes into producing normal meat in a slaughterhouse, I think they would also find that repulsive.”
Personally, if they can work out the fine details and produce something that looks like a burger, smells like a burger and tastes like a burger, I don’t care where it comes from.
If it has environmental and animal rights benefits as well, all the better.
The other really interesting aspect of this story is how the research might contribute human medicine.
The vast majority of researchers working in this field are attempting to produce tissue for transplantation.
Scientists are already “printing” skin grafts. They have also used 3D printers to produce replacement ears and are working on internal organs as well.
It’s all very exciting. Somehow, though, I have a feeling the 24th century might be a fairly accurate prediction for when people might actually be able to walk up to a computer and say: “Steak. Marbled. Rare.”