Meet the Scientist Trying to Grow Steak in a Lab

Science may have conquered the lab-grown burger but London-based PhD student, Abi Glencross is on a mission to make slaughter-free steak in a petri dish.

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Oct 5 2016, 11:22am

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Cultured muscle cells. All photos by the author.

Peering into a tray filled with pools of pinkish-red liquid, I'm dubious as to whether what I'm looking at is the future of meat production. Apparently, these trays could contain the building blocks of a juicy, succulent steak.

Yes, that's right.

I've come to meet Abi Glencross, a London-based PhD cellular agriculturalist at research institute New Harvest and one of the founders of agricultural collective, Future Farm Lab. Over an almond croissant at her laboratory in Guy's Hospital in South East London, I ask how she plans to make steak the slaughter-free way.

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"Cellular agriculture is the creation of animal products from cell cultures, rather than directly from animals," explains Glencross. "I work specifically on cultured beef: making skeletal muscle using perfused tissue engineering methods. That is, creating a system to supply the tissue with nutrients and oxygen and remove waste."

Scientists may have already conquered the lab-grown burger but Glencross is raising the stakes. Pun fully intended.

"For me, processed meats don't drive the meat industry, whole cuts do, and industrially raising cattle has one of the highest environmental impacts in agriculture," she says.

Which is where the steaks come in.

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Abi Glencross opening a parcel of cultured cells.

Glencross' project is to create a perfect, marbled T-bone with all of its intricate fibres—minus a cow being born, bred, or slaughtered. Unsurprisingly, the production process has thrown up more problems than your average beef patty would.

Croissants demolished and white coats on, we head into the lab.

"When you grow processed meat, it doesn't have much structure, so you can grow muscle fibres, whack them together, and add kind of whatever you want to it, within the law of course," explains Glencross, as she moves across the room and opens a fridge.

Piled up inside are foil-covered parcels labelled with different names. Spoiler: this is not a regular workplace fridge.

Glencross continues: "With whole cuts, there is a structure to the meat. But when you grow a tissue bigger than about 200 microns—that's really small, about 0.2 millimetres—the innermost cells start to die. Generally, oxygen is the limiting factor as it can't diffuse further than about 100 to 200 microns before it gets used up, so these cells get narcotic and die. You just get dead tissue in the middle."

Unwrapping one of the foil parcels, she explains: "So, I work on a channelled system to see whether we can feed the cells as time goes along and keep them alive."

Glencross holds out the contents of foil package and says: "I don't really know why I keep this."

I'm not entirely sure what I'm meant to be seeing. It just looks like another tray of the pinkish liquid (which I find out later were the beginnings of cultured muscle cells called myocytes).

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Glencross studying cells under a microscope.

"It's a sample that I've got to twitch [the term given to the movement the muscle fibres make when spontaneously contracting]. It's won't grow any more, but it twitched!" she explains. "I can't bring myself to throw it away."

As Glencross puts the cells back in the fridge, I remember something she told me over croissants about her upbringing in rural Cornwall. Her best mate's family are dairy farmers and family friends are beef farmers. Isn't she worried that they'll be out of business if she succeeds in growing cultured steak?

"Back home, some people won't talk to me about it," she admits. "But the reason I do this comes from an agroecological approach to farming: viewing farming as an ecosystem. It's having this holistic approach by reducing the inputs and outputs, and seeing how cultured meat can work together with good agricultural practices."

One such example is the use of collagen in tissue engineering.

"You can't currently form contracting muscle fibres without collagen, but leaving it in there didn't sit well with me because the whole reason for this project is to reduce industrial farming. I didn't want to use collagen from that type of farming and promote it," says Glencross.

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Vials from the lab's fridge.

"However, when you look into the animal agriculture system, in both industrial and agroecological practices, connective tissue and collagen are abundant and essentially a massive byproduct from places like the layer under the cow hide that goes for leather."

She continues: "There are only about five collagen-processing plants in the UK, which isn't really that many when you consider how many farms there are. So, I actually felt better when I looked at collagen as a byproduct from current animal agriculture, not a meat industry driver."

Glencross also wants cultured meat to become a new source of income for farmers.

"Food resilience is something I'm quite interested in. For example, my friend's farm had a TB scare once and if [the cattle contracted the disease], that would be it for them," she says. "But as a small-scale farmer, if you make cultured meat on the side, or have a small portion of frozen cells in case, it adds resilience to your system which makes you competitive against large industrial farming."

Glencross adds: "I know it's a bit of a romanticised view, but it's paramount good agriculture is part of our future of food conversations."

But doesn't she worry that the big corporations will be the ones who muscle in on cultured meat production first?

"The scary thing is that the industrial farms are the ones looking for efficiency and are very forward-thinking with technology, so they would probably be the ones that will take it up quickest," concedes Glencross. "That's why I feel like it's my duty to involve these agroecological farmers."

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Glencross stows away the cell samples.

I raise an eyebrow and ask what the reaction from the farming community has been like so far. She admits that things don't always get off on the right foot: "From the knee-jerk reaction of disgust, there's been intrigue about how we can work together. I reach out to a lot of farmers and chat to them about it."

Glencross carefully stows away all the samples ("They become like your children. I sing Duran Duran to them constantly") and adds: "I feel that to be rid of the current shadow of industrial farming, we need a two-pronged approach. We need to deter its drivers with cellular agriculture—an attractive option—and that's what I work on in the lab. We must also rebuild a great food system with agroecology, that's what I work on with the team at Future Farm Lab."

"Ultimately, we all want the same, better things for animal ethics, the environment, and our health."

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As we leave the lab, Glencross sums it up succinctly.

"I'm not trying to get rid of farming," she says firmly. "I want to work with it to create something better than the industrial farming model which has become the norm."

I'll admit that when I first heard about Glencross' work, I fell into the "knee-jerk reaction of disgust" camp. But as I descend the stairs from the lab out through the revolving doors, I find I'm digesting the idea of a steak born and bred in a petri dish a little more easily.

Every day this week, MUNCHIES is exploring the future of food on planet Earth, from lab-grown meat and biohacking to GMOs and the precarious state of our oceans. Find out more here.