World's First Lab-Grown Burger Unveiled and Eaten in London

The US $325,000 "Frankenburger" was funded by Google co-founder Sergey Brin

2 min read
World's First Lab-Grown Burger Unveiled and Eaten in London

At a news conference in London earlier today, researchers unveiled the world's first synthetic burger, grown entirely from stem cells in a Dutch lab. Two volunteer food experts tasted the test tube beef, while Dr. Mark Post, the Maastricht University professor who led the team that developed the ultimate made-to-order meal, said the new technology could be a sustainable way of meeting the world's growing appetite for meat.

"Meat demand is going to double in the next 40 years," Post said at a science meeting in Vancouver last year, where he first revealed his team's research efforts. "Right now we are using 70 percent of all our agricultural capacity to grow meat through livestock. You can easily calculate that we need alternatives."

According to the Telegraph UK, Post and his team extracted cow stem cells and used them to grow 20 000 strands of muscle, each about the size of a grain of rice. They then meticulously mashed these protein strands together to construct the edible hunk of beef presented at today's event. While it took the scientists just three months to grow the synthetic burger, that part of the project followed nearly six years of research.

Hanni Rutzler, an Austrian food researcher, and Josh Schonwald, a Chicago-based food writer and author of the book "The Taste of Tomorrow," stepped up as the official tasters. At first bite, the pair noted that the burger's texture felt authentic and meat-like, but the taste of fat was noticeably absent.

"I was expecting the texture to be more soft," Rutzler described to reporters at the event. "There is quite some intense taste; it's close to meat, but it's not that juicy. The consistency is perfect, but I miss salt and pepper."

"I miss the fat," Schonwald remarked. "There's a leanness to it, but the general bite feels like a hamburger. What was consistently different was flavor."

Originally, the lab-grown beef was almost white in color and had very little flavor, the Telegraph UK reports. Researchers had to add beetroot juice and saffron to give it more realistic color, and breadcrumbs and egg powder to improve its taste. These enhancements notwithstanding, Post says high production costs and possible consumer resistance may likely be major barriers to widespread adoption of the synthetic meat, at least early on. But he estimated that the cultured beef burger could be ready for the mainstream market in about "10 to 20 years." 

A June IEEE Spectrum special report on the future of food included an article about strides being made in developing meat substitutes capable of fooling the eye and the palate. But the main challenge has always been creating a cheaper meat alternative, not better ones, and the tenor of the argument has not changed here.

Developing and producing the so-called Frankenburger rang up a US $325 000 tab; the check was picked up by a heretofore secret investor. At today's event, this financier was revealed to be none other than billionaire Google cofounder Sergey Brin. He was allegedly moved to invest in the technology for animal welfare reasons.

Brin, who appeared by video at the tasting, said: "We're trying to create the first cultured beef hamburger. From there, I'm optimistic that we can really scale by leaps and bounds."

Photo: David Parry/Reuters

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Smokey the AI

Smart image analysis algorithms, fed by cameras carried by drones and ground vehicles, can help power companies prevent forest fires

7 min read
Smokey the AI

The 2021 Dixie Fire in northern California is suspected of being caused by Pacific Gas & Electric's equipment. The fire is the second-largest in California history.

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

The 2020 fire season in the United States was the worst in at least 70 years, with some 4 million hectares burned on the west coast alone. These West Coast fires killed at least 37 people, destroyed hundreds of structures, caused nearly US $20 billion in damage, and filled the air with smoke that threatened the health of millions of people. And this was on top of a 2018 fire season that burned more than 700,000 hectares of land in California, and a 2019-to-2020 wildfire season in Australia that torched nearly 18 million hectares.

While some of these fires started from human carelessness—or arson—far too many were sparked and spread by the electrical power infrastructure and power lines. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) calculates that nearly 100,000 burned hectares of those 2018 California fires were the fault of the electric power infrastructure, including the devastating Camp Fire, which wiped out most of the town of Paradise. And in July of this year, Pacific Gas & Electric indicated that blown fuses on one of its utility poles may have sparked the Dixie Fire, which burned nearly 400,000 hectares.

Until these recent disasters, most people, even those living in vulnerable areas, didn't give much thought to the fire risk from the electrical infrastructure. Power companies trim trees and inspect lines on a regular—if not particularly frequent—basis.

However, the frequency of these inspections has changed little over the years, even though climate change is causing drier and hotter weather conditions that lead up to more intense wildfires. In addition, many key electrical components are beyond their shelf lives, including insulators, transformers, arrestors, and splices that are more than 40 years old. Many transmission towers, most built for a 40-year lifespan, are entering their final decade.

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