— The meat-free burger

LAU­RIE ZOLOTH is a pro­fes­sor of med­i­cal ethics and hu­man­i­ties at North­west­ern Univer­sity, Chicago.

Cosmos - - Contents -

One man’s quest to cre­ate the per­fect meat-free burger.

WHEN I FIRST MET Stan­ford bio­chemist Pat Brown in 2000, he was al­ready a star. The one-time pe­di­a­tri­cian had shifted gear to study how the ac­tiv­ity of thou­sands of genes can go awry in cancer. That work had made him a Howard Hughes In­ves­ti­ga­tor – a mem­ber­ship only given to the most driven and cre­ative in­di­vid­u­als in ba­sic med­i­cal re­search.

Brown was also an ac­tivist. That year, along with No­bel Prize win­ner Harold Var­mus and bi­ol­o­gist Michael Eisen, he be­gan a move­ment to free up sci­en­tific lit­er­a­ture. In 2003, that led to the cre­ation of the Pub­lic Li­brary of Science (PLOS). Any­one can read re­search pa­pers pub­lished by seven dif­fer­ent PLOS jour­nals for free.

This was a Big Idea. But that is not the rea­son Brown is the hero of the Philoso­pher’s Cor­ner this month; it is for his next Big Idea.

I ran into Brown in Novem­ber 2016 at a US Na­tional Acad­e­mies sem­i­nar where he de­scribed his new­est project. It in­volved no less than, well, sav­ing the world.

About 41% of all arable land, he said, is used to grow grain for live­stock, while one-third of our fresh wa­ter con­sump­tion goes to meat pro­duc­tion. Add in the use of chem­i­cals and fuel, and the meat we con­sume rep­re­sents one of the largest con­trib­u­tors to car­bon, pes­ti­cides and pol­lu­tants on the planet. As our pop­u­la­tion swells to 10 bil­lion over the next few decades, meat-eat­ing will sim­ply be un­sus­tain­able. This is in ad­di­tion to the prob­lem of an­i­mal suf­fer­ing.

“But I like meat,” a small voice in­side you is say­ing now. Pat knows that too. Only 2% of the global pop­u­la­tion is veg­e­tar­ian. We are crea­tures de­signed to like meat.

Fig­ur­ing it would be use­less to do what I do – try to con­vince peo­ple to sim­ply act morally – Brown quit his job at Stan­ford to work full-time, along with 80 other sci­en­tists, on fig­ur­ing out how to en­gi­neer a ham­burger-like patty that could re­place beef.

Rather than take the route of grow­ing vats of an­i­mal-de­rived mus­cle stem cells, as some other al­ter­na­tive meat com­pa­nies have, he and his col­leagues opted to go 100% plant.

Life is chem­istry. Burg­ers are chem­istry too.

The red meat colour and much of the flavour comes from haem, a mol­e­cule at the core of the blood pro­tein haemoglobin. Soy­beans make a ver­sion too, leghaemoglobin, and it is this pro­tein that makes Brown’s burg­ers so blood­ily re­al­is­tic. His team has en­gi­neered yeast cells to man­u­fac­ture it by the buck­et­load by in­sert­ing the soy­bean gene for leghaemoglobin into the yeast genome. The blood red pro­tein is mixed with a pre­ci­sion for­mula of wheat pro­tein and other chem­i­cals to mimic the tex­ture and taste of beef.

Your in­trepid philoso­pher tried one of th­ese burg­ers at a ve­gan res­tau­rant in Los An­ge­les called Cross­roads. It looked and tasted ex­actly like a burger from a fast food place. But the so-called Im­pos­si­ble Burger uses one-ninth the wa­ter, one-twelfth the land and pro­duces one-quar­ter of the green­house gases of a beef burger.

Is it pos­si­ble to change such a deeply en­trenched in­dus­try as meat pro­duc­tion? The his­tory of my home town, Chicago – “hog butcher to the world” – is un­der­pinned by rolling herds and feed­lots; and, to be sure, there will be vast dis­lo­ca­tion due to jobs lost if Brown’s plan to make meat ob­so­lete suc­ceeds. But potato, wheat and co­conut farm­ers will surely gain enor­mously.

Brown likens the change to the in­tro­duc­tion of au­to­mo­biles: “When the first car raced a horse, the horse would win, but then it never did again.” He has made that ar­gu­ment to dozens of Sil­i­con Val­ley en­trepreneurs, who have backed him with mil­lions, be­cause if he can get this right, there is a for­tune to be made in ef­fi­cient and more cheaply pro­duced “meat”.

To turn your lab and your life to sav­ing the planet is a re­mark­able act of ethics. Pat Brown and his col­leagues should have our sup­port.


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