Is meat made any other way still as sweet?

I have spent the last couple of months reading journal articles on food processing and technology. Recently, a review article caught my eye – Meet the new meat: tissue engineered skeletal muscle (Trends in Food Science & Technology Volume 21, Issue 2, February 2010, Pages 59-66). Having friends in tissue engineering laboratories that tackle this challenging field of research, I was curious to read what the authors had to say regarding tissue engineering for food stock.

The authors state the case promoting research to develope engineered meats, arguing that the current trends in energy use, land use, and environmental concerns with greenhouse gas emissions dictate the development of alternative meat sources. They list some of the current uses of tissue engineering (such as medical replacement tissue and/or skeletal structure to help mitigate damage caused by disease or accident or for the in vitro study of key metabolic processes) and rely on these experimental results to discuss how they could lead to the generation of artificially produced meat products.

There have been exciting advances in the design and engineering of artificial matrices, which support cell growth, holding promise for the future of medicine and biomedical engineering, although there are many challenges still left to address. (Perspectives and challenges in tissue engineering and regenerative medicine, Advanced Materials, 21:  3235-3236, 2009; a good review of current challenges and strategies is covered in the February 10 issue of The Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences). The ability to direct a drug of choice to the area in which it is needed, or to construct a bio-degradable scaffold for the introduction of regenerative tissue to a site of injury will alleviate many diseases which affect our quality of life. But, one thing all these therapies have in common is that they are designed to provide an affected body with the building blocks that will allow it to heal and restore itself.

Engineering and growing muscle tissue without an underlying or enveloping system to provide molecular instructions and guide cellular and structural growth changes the rules of the game. As the authors pointed out in this review, there are many factors that affect the development of the structure and function of muscle tissue. As of now, we do not have a complete understanding about the underlying cellular signaling and molecular decision-making pathways to ensure that the process of engineering and designing artificial meat will provide a sustainable and desirable product for human consumption.

The next barrier facing this research will be to scale up the process. What works at the bench or in a laboratory will not necessarily work in large-scale processes. Although much work has been done scaling up the production of medically relevant products using large fermenters, new plant and equipment design will be needed to address the challenges of tissue manufacturing.

If these challenges were to be met, and palatable genetically engineered meat products were produced, bringing these products to the market would generate another set of obstacles. Resistance to and fear of genetically engineered or modified foods by many people will have to be addressed. Governments and scientists need to educate their constituents and communities about the benefits, risks, and ethical implications of genetic engineered foods. Local and national regulation need to be enacted to provide commerce with direction and oversight.

As excited as I am about the possibility of eating an engineered ‘steak’ or ‘pork chop’, I believe that much work needs to be done before we see the commercialization of genetically engineered meats available for consumption.

Padma Lakshmi opens the MIT Center for Gynepathology Research

The room was packed. We had received an invitation to sit in the special seating section and to attend the ‘after party’. Lily and I waited, in the third row, front and center.  Padma Lakshmi would be walking though those doors, stage left, momentarily. We’ve watched her on Bravo’s Top Chef for 6 seasons now.  Always so beautifully dressed, with her smile, knowing that she was ready to challenge the next set of top chef’s almost beyond their culinary limits. And for all but one, past that breaking point where they hit that wall and fell short of their gastronomic dreams.

Padma Lakshmi was at MIT for the official launch of the MIT Center for Gynepathology Research. This research center, the child of Professor Linda Griffith, is the first interdisciplinary academic research institute which brings together biologists, clinicians, and engineers with the goal of understanding the basic biology, physiology, and pathophysiology of the female reproductive tract.

Professor Linda Griffith began the afternoon by introducing Susan E. Whitehead, Lifetime Member of the MIT Corporation and Vice Chairman of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research. Ms. Whitehead remarked on the bold research initiative embodied in the center. Dr. Tamer Seckin, President and Founder of the Endometriosis Foundation of America (EFA), followed her and introduced Padma Lakshmi.

There she was, tall, beautiful, poised, radiant, and very much pregnant. Ms. Lakshmi began to share the account of her personal struggle and eventual diagnosis with endometriosis. This disease slowly wrestled control of her life and body away from her.  She recalled of how she suffered alone with this recurring, debilitating disease, learning to tolerate excruciating pain.  Scheduling her life around the monthly assaults by this unbearable condition. Living every day with this incapacitating disease, one which until recently had no name or meaning to her. Her pain was apparent in her heart felt rendering of how she had suffered through misdiagnosis and unnecessary medical procedures before a friend referred her to Dr. Seckin. Padma told of the relief she felt hearing Dr. Seckin’s words.  He understood what she was going through.  His life’s work has been dedicated to understanding the molecular underpinnings of this debilitating disease.  Now, almost three years later, Padma tells of how she has regained control of her life and her body.

Through out her talk, Padma emphasized how the lack of awareness and education regarding endometriosis had shaped the medical diagnosis, treatment and response to her disease. She spoke of how social taboos deterred her from asking the right questions and demanding answers regarding her body and her physical state. She also described how the people who were closest in her life at times misunderstood or played down her symptoms, leaving her doubting her ability to properly describe her symptoms to others. It was not until Padma met Dr. Seckin that she finally understood the impact that endometriosis had had on her life.

What can you do as a woman, a partner, a loved one, for someone who is suffering with endometriosis? Education and information are the best tools to help you understand and identify the symptoms of this disease. Awareness of your body is key.  For those of us who care for our close ones, understanding and believing that when they complain, the pain and the discomfort they feel is real.  Do not brush it aside.  For all of us, do not hesitate to obtain a second opinion on a diagnosis.

In her closing remarks, Padma extended her heart felt thanks to Professor Griffith and the other members of the research center for making the MIT Center for Gynepathology Research a reality. For more information regarding endometriosis or other chronic non-cancerous diseases of the female reproductive tract please visit the MIT Center for Gynepathology Research or The Endometriosis Foundation of America.  Also, please read the article that appeared in the Boston Globe on Friday, December 4th.

Center for Alternative Technology – Paul Allen

Last Friday, Paul Allen from the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) in Machynlleth Mid-Wales spoke about the centers work during seminar in the Parson’s Lab.  He is the CAT Development Director and co-author of the Zero Carbon Britain (ZCB) report. Mr. Allen has spent the last month traveling the US from the East Coast to the West Coast by train giving his presentation about the CAT and the ZCB initiative.

The CAT advocates for an environmental policy that integrates current and emerging environmental management practices, new technology, and education to promote sustainable living communities.  Recently they partnered with University of East London to offer graduate programs in Architecture specializing in Environmental and Energy Studies, Renewable energy in the Built Environment, and Ecological Building Practices.  Mr. Allen’s work with CAT and the ZCB report is providing a policy and lifestyle framework which if adopted, can lower their dependency on fossil fuels and imported energy taking Britain a long way on the road to zero carbon emissions and energy independence.  Along the way, I hope they can provide a successful, sustainable environmental management model that can be used by other developed nations.  If you are interested in finding out more about the CAT, make sure to visit them online.

Life under high pressure – the setup

High Pressure Chamber PartsIt was only recently that we began to understand the capacity of microbes to populate the most inhospitable places on earth.  From the inside of nuclear reactors to highly corrosive sulfur environments, microbes are there.   We have found them in 100,000 year old ice cores and in the bottom of the deepest ocean. Microbes were among the first life forms and many of them have evolved in extreme, isolated environments.

One of my research interests is to examine how microbes thrive in these extreme environments.  One unique place where microbes live is deep in the earth’s surface.  Here, they live at elevated temperatures and pressures.   They also have to make do with very little source of nutrients.  Between the extreme environment, low nutrients,  and evolutionary isolation, these life forms harbor the possibility of novel energy regulation and utilization pathways.

To study these microbes, we have to design and build our own experimental equipment.  Currenlty, I am building a high pressure microbial growth chamber for one of the projects I am work on.  This system is going to be able to withstand pressures greater than 160 ATM (1 ATM = 14.7 psi).  We also will have an optical setup with a view cell which will let us examine how our cultures are behaving under these high pressures.  I hope to have the safety cage built this week (the picture is of me drilling the 3/8″ steel plate for the bottom of the cage) and start piping the growth chamber next week.  It is really exciting to see how all of this is coming together.  Stay tuned to see the progress of the high pressure growth chamber.

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