Friday, August 9, 2013

Fifth Column Fruit Flies and Return of the Immortal Chicken Heart

California's insect 'invaders' may be native to the state, and there's a new way to grow beef:
  1. California Fruit Flies
  2. A Burger By Any Other Name
I suppose someone's already written a frightfully fearful editorial on the horrors unleashed in England this week. Headlines calling the new meat "stem cell hamburger" won't, I think, help folks think straight about this remarkable development.

Dihydrogen Monoxide and Attack of the Killer Tomatoes

I don't see a new method of producing meat as a threat, but I also don't think dihydrogen monoxide should be banned.

I'm a 'city boy,' but grew up knowing about farms: and spent enough time in northern Minnesota to notice a difference between domestic plants and animals and their wild counterparts.

Add a nerdy interest in science to that mix, and you get someone who can't take the crisis du jure very seriously:
"...Humans have been developing 'genetically modified' plants and animals for a long time. What's different now is that some call the old ones 'domesticated,' and the new ones 'GMO.' And, inevitably, are afraid of the new ones...."
("Killer Tomatoes and a Ranting Lemming," Apathetic Lemming of the North (August 6, 2013))
It helps that I learned the difference between feelings and thoughts in my youth. That helped keep me alive, and that's another topic. Topics:
Scaring folks is a proven way to get results. In propaganda and marketing it's called the appeal to fear: commercials for life insurance and acne medications are notorious examples.

Talk about 'a boy and his dog,' and folks feel warm all over. Pitch a story about a boy and his mutant wolf, and you'll get a different reaction: even though that's what dogs are.
I've read Genesis 1:26-27. Knowing that we've been changing the nature of other critters for upwards of 15,000 years doesn't surprise me. We're made "in the image of God," which is a scary thought:
"With great power there must also come -
great responsibility!
(Stan Lee, in Amazing Fantasy #15 (August 1962) (the first Spider-Man story))

1. California Fruit Flies

"Insect Invasion: Fruit-Fly Army Infiltrating California"
Tia Ghose, LiveScience (August 6, 2013)

"They're here! For the past several decades, a stealthy foe has been secretly infiltrating California, spreading far and wide.

"No, they're not Russian spies - they're fruit flies. Several species of fly, including the Mediterranean fruit fly, have been secretly spreading in the state for decades, new research finds.

"The study, published today (Aug. 6) in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, also predicts that crop damage resulting from the insect invasion, as well as lost trade due to other countries' refusal to import California produce, could amount to $1.2 billion in lost revenue...."
Some fruit flies, the ones that wait until fruit is overripe, don't get in our way. These little critters are pests because they like fruit that we'd like to eat. They've been here before, and got the catchy name "medfly" in the 1989 'invasion.'

Conventional wisdom has been that medflies were outsiders. Maybe so, but the LiveScience article says that the University of California, Davis's James Carey, an entomologist, and others think that pests may be locals.

The idea is that critters carried into the area would show up at random locations. Carey and company found that troublesome fruit fly species popped up in particular 'hot spots.' A reasonable explanation is that they're there all the time, occasionally getting populous enough to be a nuisance.

A not-so-reasonable explanation is that California's fruit flies are part of an insectoid fifth column, under the command of shape-shifting space alien lizard men. And no, I really don't think so.

2. A Burger By Any Other Name

(from BBC News, used w/o permission)
"Food critics give their verdict on the burger's taste and texture"
"World's first lab-grown burger is eaten in London"
BBC News (August 5, 2013)

"The world's first lab-grown burger has been cooked and eaten at a news conference in London.

"Scientists took cells from a cow and, at an institute in the Netherlands, turned them into strips of muscle that they combined to make a patty.

"One food expert said it was 'close to meat, but not that juicy' and another said it tasted like a real burger.

"Researchers say the technology could be a sustainable way of meeting what they say is a growing demand for meat...."
Folks who say "sustainable" don't necessarily know what that means. A gushy article on someone's ultra-upscale tropical mansion extolled the virtues of its "sustainable" wood: which had been imported across a sizable fraction of Earth's circumference.

I'm not expert, but it seems that fewer resources would have been expended by using less expensive wood that grew in forests - next to the mansion. Bear in mind that I'm one of those people who thinks wood grows on trees.

That said, the researchers seem to know what they're talking about.

Today's prototype sample cost about a million dollars a pound. After the process gets developed for commercial use, lab-grown meat would use a little less energy and a lot less land than 'good old-fashioned' methods.

Folks who worry about methane from cows should like the new tech, too. It produces fewer greenhouse gasses.

(From Environment & Technology Journal, via BBC News, used w/o permission)

"Meat to Me"

"...The burger was cooked by chef Richard McGeown, from Cornwall, and tasted by food critics Hanni Ruetzler and Josh Schonwald

"Upon tasting the burger, Austrian food researcher Ms Ruetzler said: 'I was expecting the texture to be more soft... there is quite some intense taste; it's close to meat, but it's not that juicy. The consistency is perfect, but I miss salt and pepper.

" 'This is meat to me. It's not falling apart.'

"Food writer Mr Schonwald said: 'The mouthfeel is like meat. I miss the fat, there's a leanness to it, but the general bite feels like a hamburger.

" 'What was consistently different was flavour.'

"Prof Mark Post, of Maastricht University, the scientist behind the burger, remarked: 'It's a very good start.'

"The professor said the meat was made up of tens of billions of lab-grown cells. Asked when lab-grown burgers would reach the market, he said: 'I think it will take a while. This is just to show we can do it.'...."
I'd never have been invited to an affair like this. I'm not a food critic, my culinary skills end with grilling burgers over a propane flame, and I'd probably prefer my wife's potato stew to hachis de boeuf parmentier.

But if they say the lab-grown meat tastes like hamburger, I believe them. I'd like to try some, myself.

Not a Complete Solution

"...Prof Tara Garnett, head of the Food Policy Research Network at Oxford University, said decision-makers needed to look beyond technological solutions.

" 'We have a situation where 1.4 billion people in the world are overweight and obese, and at the same time one billion people worldwide go to bed hungry,' she said.

" 'That's just weird and unacceptable. The solutions don't just lie with producing more food but changing the systems of supply and access and affordability, so not just more food but better food gets to the people who need it.'..."
(BBC News)
I agree that producing more food globally isn't a complete solution. Right now, we seem to produce enough food to satisfy everyone's needs: and then some.

The problem is getting food to folks who need it.

If fixing corrupt and inefficient distribution networks depended on refusing to develop any new technology: abandoning this research would make sense.

I do not think we've got an 'either-or' situation here. My guess is that the combined resources of England and the Netherlands can support Maastricht University's meat research, and maintain funding for outfits like Oxford's Food Policy Research Network.

That's a good thing, since what happened in South Sudan is far from unique.

Beyond the $325,000 Burger

"Building a $325,000 Burger"
Henry Fountain, The New York Times (May 12, 2013)

"As a gastronomic delicacy, the five-ounce hamburger that Mark Post has painstakingly created here surely will not turn any heads. But Dr. Post is hoping that it will change some minds.

"The hamburger, assembled from tiny bits of beef muscle tissue grown in a laboratory and to be cooked and eaten at an event in London, perhaps in a few weeks, is meant to show the world - including potential sources of research funds - that so-called in vitro meat, or cultured meat, is a reality.

" '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," ' Dr. Post said in an interview last fall in his office at Maastricht University...."
I remember a time when news of well-to-do folks getting together to eat a $325,000 test-tube hamburger would have been followed by bitter discussions of social justice, economic oppression, and the evils of technology.

Years later, after I'd become a Catholic, I learned that social justice makes sense. (Catechism, 1928-1942)

Cultured Beef and Supermarket Shelves

"...Down the hall, in a lab with incubators filled with clear plastic containers holding a pinkish liquid, a technician was tending to the delicate task of growing the tens of billions of cells needed to make the burger, starting with a particular type of cell removed from cow necks obtained at a slaughterhouse.

"The idea of creating meat in a laboratory - actual animal tissue, not a substitute made from soybeans or other protein sources - has been around for decades. The arguments in favor of it are many, covering both animal welfare and environmental issues...."

"...But the meat is produced with materials - including fetal calf serum, used as a medium in which to grow the cells - that eventually would have to be replaced by similar materials of non-animal origin. And the burger was created at phenomenal cost - 250,000 euros, or about $325,000, provided by a donor who so far has remained anonymous. Large-scale manufacturing of cultured meat that could sit side by side with conventional meat in a supermarket and compete with it in price is at the very least a long way off...."
(Henry Fountain, The New York Times)
Making a prototype, a proof-of-concept model, doesn't have to be expensive. Some folks build theirs from foam, wood, metal, paper, or cardboard.

That isn't always practical, of course. I suppose someone could try making meat out of wood. Termites do that, sort of, but they've got microcritters helping them, and that's yet another topic or two.
What's important here is that there's no point in running to the grocery and asking for 'Post's Cultured Beef,' or whatever it'll be called.

Mark Post and two technicians at Maastricht University showed that growing 'test tube meat' works, and makes a pretty good hamburger. If I was in Mark Post's position, I'd probably be as cautious as he was about what's involved in turning his laboratory curiosity into competition for old-school sirloin steak.

But my guess is that we're years, not decades, before 'cultured beef' shows up in supermarkets.

Background on Mark Post's research:

An Immortal Chicken Heart

Henry Fountain was right when he said that "the idea of creating meat in a laboratory" has been around for "decades:" but that's an understatement.

We've had the technology for more than a century.

An early, and famous, 'meat in a laboratory' experiment started in 1912 at the Rockefeller Institute in New York City.

"The chicken heart that wouldn't die" sounds like something from the bottom of Hollywood's B-movie barrel, but that's what lived in a laboratory more than a century ago.

None-too-calm news coverage of Alexis Carrel's 1912 experiment with muscle tissue from the heart of a chick may have inspired dramas like "Tarantula." Slightly less agitated folks thought that organisms don't have to die, based on Carrel's bit of pulsing muscle.

The idea wasn't as crazy at it might sound. Matilda the Chicken lived for 16 years, but she was an odd bird. Most chickens live five to 10 years. In 1922 Carrel's tissue culture was alive and well: when the chick it came from would have died of old age.

Folks at the Rockefeller Institute threw out the still-living tissue in 1946, other scientists didn't manage to keep their chicken hearts alive as long as Carrel did, and that's yet again another topic.
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