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€250,000 lab-grown burger heading to London

A researcher at Maastricht University in the Netherlands has managed to grow a burger patty in a lab from stem cells.

(Cheeseburger With Lettuce, Tomato and Onion image by Pink Sherbet Photography, CC BY 2.0)

A researcher at Maastricht University in the Netherlands has managed to grow a burger patty in a lab from stem cells.

Step aside, 3D-printed meat! After several years of research, a burger grown in a lab may finally be ready for human consumption.

Called "in vitro meat", this particular version was created by Dr Mark Post of Maastricht University in the Netherlands, who wants to see lab-grown meat taken out of the lab and put into bellies. "Let's make a proof of concept, and change the discussion from 'this is never going to work' to, 'well, we actually showed that it works, but now we need to get funding and work on it'," he said last year.

Using animal stem cells, Dr Post created thin strips of muscle tissue, grown in culture dishes — about 20,000 strips per burger. There are a few problems with the process, and not just that the meat produced has no fat cells — which are not only possibly very good for you, but also make meat delicious — but involve logistical complications.

For a start, muscle tissue is difficult to grow, and quite slow. This can be alleviated by the use of growth hormones, but then there are growth hormones in the meat. Then, you need a culture medium to feed the meat; cells can't just grow on air. Currently, fetal calf serum is used, which is cumbersome and expensive to obtain.

As you can imagine, the entire process is very costly. Dr Post's burger cost around €250,000 to produce, or roughly AU$326,000 — not a price that inspires confidence in the substance's accessibility. Especially if it is on the bland side — although Dr Post asserted that the taste is "reasonably good".

However, the technology is still in its early stages. The price, like that of every early technology, will eventually come down; the bigger hurdle will probably be convincing people that lab-grown meat is OK to eat. While we can come up with all sorts of very convincing arguments, such as, "Well, it never had eyes to give you sad looks with from animal heaven" and "At least you know for a fact it never had scabies", Dr Post might be a little more successful.

He plans to unveil his meat next month at an as yet unnamed event in London. In fact, we wouldn't be surprised if the event remains unnamed until after the tasting, just to see if anyone can tell the difference.