Technology

Jason Matheny's Meatloaf from a Petri Dish


Jason G. Matheny wants to take a single stem cell and make meatloaf.

In 2004, Matheny, then 29, created a nonprofit called New Harvest to turn that idea into reality. Thanks in part to his efforts, meat made in petri dishes may arrive at supermarkets within 5 to 10 years. "It's a way to satisfy the growing global demand for meat in a way that's healthier, more energy efficient, and sustainable," says Matheny, who has an MBA from Duke University and is studying for a PhD in applied economics at Johns Hopkins University.

Matheny's meat starts in a lab, where scientists extract stem cells from animal muscles. The cells are placed in a nutrient bath to develop and then on plastic scaffolding that allows them to form into strips as they multiply. Mark Post, a professor of tissue engineering at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands, may be close to realizing New Harvest's vision. Post's lab is producing 2 mm thick strips that are almost an inch long and a quarter-inch wide. Pack enough together, and you've got a meal.

Matheny's interest in changing the world's dietary habits began at age 13, when the Kentucky native first visited what he describes as a "factory farm" in his home state. The experience unsettled him. "Tens of thousands of animals are raised shoulder-to-shoulder, living in their own waste, pumped full of drugs, in a shed," Matheny says. "That, to me, is less appealing than making meat in a sterile facility. This process is like [growing] hydroponic vegetables, in a way."

Matheny claims that test tube meat could do more for the environment than "everyone trading their cars for bicycles," and he has a point: The meat industry generates some 18% of the world's greenhouse gases, according to a 2006 UN report. That proportion is expected to grow as consumers in developing countries such as China and India consume more meat.

Matheny spent $5,000 of his own money to get New Harvest off the ground. The nonprofit has no paid employees and draws contributions of less than $50,000 a year, he says. Matheny's outfit has helped fund research at Oxford University in the U.K. and Utrecht University in the Netherlands. Yet its main mission, according to its founder, is serving as a "clearinghouse for information and research findings." It was an academic paper on the feasibility of cultured meat co-authored by Matheny and published in 2005 that persuaded the Dutch government to fund Post's work at Eindhoven.

Though that research is probably the most advanced in the field, the scientist acknowledges that there are challenges to be surmounted before his in vitro pork can move onto dinner plates. One problem is flavor. Post hasn't tasted his own handiwork because he says he's averse to eating his experiments. But he's been told by those who have that it doesn't taste like the real thing. Pig farmers everywhere can breathe easy—at least for now.

Goal

A sustainable alternative to livestock farming

Background

MBA; PhD candidate in applied economics

Quote

"This...is like [growing] hydroponic vegetables"

Lopatto is a reporter for Bloomberg News.

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