I have spent the last couple of months reading journal articles on food processing and technology. Recently, a review article caught my eye – Meet the new meat: tissue engineered skeletal muscle (Trends in Food Science & Technology Volume 21, Issue 2, February 2010, Pages 59-66). Having friends in tissue engineering laboratories that tackle this challenging field of research, I was curious to read what the authors had to say regarding tissue engineering for food stock.
The authors state the case promoting research to develope engineered meats, arguing that the current trends in energy use, land use, and environmental concerns with greenhouse gas emissions dictate the development of alternative meat sources. They list some of the current uses of tissue engineering (such as medical replacement tissue and/or skeletal structure to help mitigate damage caused by disease or accident or for the in vitro study of key metabolic processes) and rely on these experimental results to discuss how they could lead to the generation of artificially produced meat products.
There have been exciting advances in the design and engineering of artificial matrices, which support cell growth, holding promise for the future of medicine and biomedical engineering, although there are many challenges still left to address. (Perspectives and challenges in tissue engineering and regenerative medicine, Advanced Materials, 21: 3235-3236, 2009; a good review of current challenges and strategies is covered in the February 10 issue of The Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences). The ability to direct a drug of choice to the area in which it is needed, or to construct a bio-degradable scaffold for the introduction of regenerative tissue to a site of injury will alleviate many diseases which affect our quality of life. But, one thing all these therapies have in common is that they are designed to provide an affected body with the building blocks that will allow it to heal and restore itself.
Engineering and growing muscle tissue without an underlying or enveloping system to provide molecular instructions and guide cellular and structural growth changes the rules of the game. As the authors pointed out in this review, there are many factors that affect the development of the structure and function of muscle tissue. As of now, we do not have a complete understanding about the underlying cellular signaling and molecular decision-making pathways to ensure that the process of engineering and designing artificial meat will provide a sustainable and desirable product for human consumption.
The next barrier facing this research will be to scale up the process. What works at the bench or in a laboratory will not necessarily work in large-scale processes. Although much work has been done scaling up the production of medically relevant products using large fermenters, new plant and equipment design will be needed to address the challenges of tissue manufacturing.
If these challenges were to be met, and palatable genetically engineered meat products were produced, bringing these products to the market would generate another set of obstacles. Resistance to and fear of genetically engineered or modified foods by many people will have to be addressed. Governments and scientists need to educate their constituents and communities about the benefits, risks, and ethical implications of genetic engineered foods. Local and national regulation need to be enacted to provide commerce with direction and oversight.
As excited as I am about the possibility of eating an engineered ‘steak’ or ‘pork chop’, I believe that much work needs to be done before we see the commercialization of genetically engineered meats available for consumption.