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Long slow cook to put in-vitro on tables

Chris ThomasThe West Australian

The world's first lab-grown beef burger may have captured headlines last month but despite reports, in-vitro meat is not something new.

Perth researchers from SymbioticA at the University of WA's centre of excellence in biological arts first grew an in-vitro "steak" in 2000 when research residents at Harvard Medical School's tissue engineering and organ fabrication laboratory.

"It was grown from prenatal sheep cells harvested as part of research into tissue engineering techniques in utero," SymbioticA director Oron Catts said.

"Isolated skeletal muscle cells from a sheep embryo were grown over a polyglycolic acid mash, which is a bio-absorbable polymer scaffold.

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"The cells were cultured in a micro-gravity bioreactor and placed in a 37C, 5 per cent carbon dioxide incubator to enable three-dimensional tissue growth and provide mass transport of nutrients into the full thickness of the construct (4mm).

"They were fed with nutrient media that contained 10 per cent foetal calf serum and antibiotics but we were developing this 'meat' in a medical research lab so we could not eat it."

A chance to grow and eat in- vitro meat came in 2003 when they set up a tissue engineering lab in a French museum.

"We used skeletal muscle cells from a frog using a similar method as part of our Disembodied Cuisine exhibition at Nantes," SymbioticA curator and researcher Dr Ionat Zurr said. "It was the first time the public, or anyone as far as we know, had the opportunity to taste in-vitro meat when it was cooked and eaten in a nouvelle cuisine-style dinner on the last day of the show.

"Out of the eight people to taste the in-vitro frog, four spat it out."

Mr Catts said the recent in- vitro beef burger experiment used processes similar to those used in 2000 and 2003, though there were differences.

"As far as we know, no substrates were used as scaffolds and the quantity of cells was extremely high," he said.

"So were the resources used to sustain and grow the cells, including the blood plasma serum taken from animals and antibiotics to prevent contamination by bacteria or fungi.

"We also believe the cells were given some electrical stimulation during the growth period.

"For the final burger, there were other ingredients added to improve colour, texture and taste such as salt, breadcrumbs, egg powder, beet juice and saffron."

SymbioticA researchers are experimenting with a custom-designed bioreactor that will "exercise" the skeletal muscle, hopefully giving in-vitro meat more texture.

"The need to use antibiotics and blood plasma from animals, the texture and taste, and the cost of production are all still major obstacles towards achieving any large scale, commercially viable outcomes," Dr Zurr said.

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