Every other day, Marie Gibbons carefully attends to several clear, plastic flasks in her lab that each contain a shallow layer of red fluid. Suspended in that fluid are living cells biopsied from the muscle tissue of a live turkey. To keep them happy and thriving, Gibbons feeds the cells a concoction of amino acids, vitamins, glucose, sodium bicarbonate, chicken serum, penicillin and other substances, so that they'll divide and multiply. She's cultured 75 vials worth so far, each containing at least 5 million cells.
These "little guys," as Gibbons refers to them, are special. They're a type of adult stem cell called satellite cells that can be encouraged to develop into muscle. In Gibbons' ideal future world, she would get these cells to grow into turkey breasts, thighs and drumsticks fit for a Thanksgiving Day feast - all of the meat delectably indistinguishable from the real thing.
She is not alone in her quest. Gibbons and a handful of other researchers around the world are part of a cutting-edge area of technology called cellular agriculture that combines the latest advances in tissue-engineering, material sciences, bioengineering and synthetic biology to make animal products from the cell up. With the right kind of funding and USDA approval, lab-grown turkey meat could be on your plate in five to seven years.
The benefits could be staggering. Growing crops to feed animals and then raising those animals requires a third of the world's fertile land, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. It accounts for between 43 percent and 57 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to a report from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. In the United States, agriculture uses 80 percent of water available for consumption. Not to mention the pollution from pesticides, the loss of habitat from deforestation, the overuse of antibiotics and the health concerns from bacterial contamination.
Early Native Americans Raised Turkeys, But Not to Eat
Cultured meat would require substantially less land and water, would produce far fewer emissions and pollution and wouldn't require pesticides or antibiotics. With the world's population expected to grow to 9 billion by 2050, finding new ways to feed people will be critical.
For Gibbons, though, it's about the animals. She grew up on a hobby farm in North Carolina, where the animals were like pets and a part of the family. As a teenager and through college, she worked for different veterinarians treating animals on small farms, many which were animal-welfare approved.
"As someone who cared deeply about animals and also liked science, I always wanted to be a vet," she said.
But over time, Gibbons found herself questioning the living conditions that farm animals faced. Even though these smaller farms took better care of their animals than large, factory operations, the farmers still castrated bulls without pain medicine, burned off the horns on baby goats and separated mothers from their young.
The breaking point came with a cow that had developed a severe case of pink eye, an infection that could spread to the brain and kill it. Because the farmer could not afford to have the cow transported to the hospital for surgery or euthanize the animal, the vet had to cut out the eye while she was still conscious.
"It was a real life horror movie," Gibbons told Seeker. "That weekend, I was supposed to go skiing with my family, but instead I stayed home and cried."
She knew then that she could never become a vet. But by then, she'd heard some things about cellular agriculture, and decided to pursue it.
"As an in vitro meat scientist, I could save billions of animals," she said.
She wasn't exaggerating. According to the USDA, 230 million turkeys are slaughtered annually in the United States, compared to 29 million cows and 111 million pigs. Chickens are slaughtered at a rate of 9 billion per year. (Creating lab-grown chicken meat is also a possibility for Gibbons.)
Gibbons reached out to New Harvest, a nonprofit in New York City that's working to accelerate research in cellular agriculture. After applying and meeting with the firm's CEO, Isha Datar, Gibbons received a grant for nearly $120,000 to do research at North Carolina State University with Paul Mozdziak, a professor of poultry science. Mozdziak has more than 25 years experience working with avian cell cultures and had developed a module for large-scale culturing of animal cells in bioreactors.