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‘THE GENESIS MACHINE’: Lab-grown meat is the future, just as Winston Churchill predicted

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Winston Churchill: 'We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium'.

ANDREW TARANTOLA: From domestication and selective breeding to synthetic insulin and CRISPR, humanity has long sought understand, master and exploit the genetic coding of the natural world… In The Genesis Machine: Our Quest to Rewrite Life in the Age of Synthetic Biology authors Amy Webb and Andrew Hessel… delve into the history of the field of synthetic biology, examine today’s state of the art and imagine what a future might look like where life itself can be manufactured molecularly…

Excerpted from: ‘THE GENESIS MACHINE: Our Quest to Rewrite Life in the Age of Synthetic Biology’ by Amy Webb and Andrew Hessel…

‘It’s plausible that by the year 2040, many societies will think it’s immoral to eat traditionally produced meat and dairy products. Some luminaries have long believed this was inevitable. In his essay “Fifty Years Hence,” published in 1931, Winston Churchill argued, “We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.”

That theory was tested in 2013, when the first lab-grown hamburger made its debut. It was grown from bovine stem cells in the lab of Dutch stem cell researcher Mark Post at Maastricht University, thanks to funding from Google cofounder Sergey Brin. It was fortuitous that a billionaire funded the project, because the price to produce a single patty was $375,000. But by 2015, the cost to produce a lab-grown hamburger had plummeted to $11.43.

Late in 2020, Singapore approved a local competitor to the slaughterhouse: a bioreactor, a high-tech vat for growing organisms, run by US-based Eat Just, which produces cultured chicken nuggets. In Eat Just’s bioreactors, cells taken from live chickens are mixed with a plant-based serum and grown into an edible product. Chicken nuggets produced this way are already being sold in Singapore, a highly regulated country that’s also one of the world’s most important innovation hotspots. And the rising popularity of the product could accelerate its market entry in other countries…

Lab-grown meat remains expensive today, but the costs are expected to continue to drop as the technology matures. Until they do, some companies are creating hybrid animal-plant proteins. Startups in the United Kingdom are developing blended pork products, including bacon created from 70 percent cultured pork cells mixed with plant proteins. Even Kentucky Fried Chicken is exploring the feasibility of selling hybrid chicken nuggets, which would consist of 20 percent cultured chicken cells and 80 percent plants.

Shifting away from traditional farming would deliver an enormous positive environmental impact. Scientists at the University of Oxford and the University of Amsterdam estimated that cultured meat would require between 35 and 60 percent less energy, occupy 98 percent less land, and produce 80 to 95 percent fewer greenhouse gases than conventional animals farmed for consumption. A synthetic-biology-centered agriculture also promises to shrink the distance between essential operators in the supply chain.

In the future, large bioreactors will be situated just outside major cities, where they will produce the cultured meat required by institutions such as schools, government buildings and hospitals, and perhaps even local restaurants and grocery stores. Rather than shipping tuna from the ocean to the Midwest, which requires a complicated, energy-intensive cold chain, fish could instead be cultured in any landlocked state. Imagine the world’s most delicate, delicious bluefin tuna sushi sourced not from the waters near Japan, but from a bioreactor in Hastings, Nebraska.

Synthetic biology will also improve the safety of the global food supply. Every year, roughly 600 million people become ill from contaminated food, according to World Health Organization estimates, and 400,000 die. Romaine lettuce contaminated with E. coli infected 167 people across 27 states in January 2020, resulting in 85 hospitalizations. In 2018, an intestinal parasite known as Cyclospora, which causes what is best described as explosive diarrhea, resulted in McDonald’s, Trader Joe’s, Kroger, and Walgreens removing foods from their shelves. Vertical farming can minimize these problems. But synthetic biology can help in a different way, too: Often, tracing the source of tainted food is difficult, and the detective work can take weeks. But a researcher at Harvard University has pioneered the use of genetic barcodes that can be affixed to food products before they enter the supply chain, making them traceable when problems arise.SOURCE…

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