Winston Churchill wrote in 1931: "Fifty years hence, we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium."
Churchill's prediction hasn't come true on the schedule he laid out. But people like Natalie Rubio are working as quickly as they can to bring about his vision of lab-grown meat, or what's now known as "cellular agriculture."
The ability to grow meat in a laboratory or factory environment wouldn't just sidestep the "absurdity" of raising whole chickens, turkeys, pigs, or cows just for their meat. It could also save energy and water and help the environment by stemming the release of greenhouse gases.
That's a vision that Natalie says has obsessed her ever since her undergraduate days at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Now she's pursuing it as a doctoral student in biomedical engineering at Tufts University, where she's part of David Kaplan's laboratory.
Kaplan is a professor of biomedical engineering and director of the Tissue Engineering Resource Center, an NIH-backed project studying all the components that will be needed in the future to grow cultured tissues: cell lines, "bioreactor" environments, scaffold materials, and growth media.
Natalie's particular interest is in finding a suitable scaffolding material, such as bioengineered silk or chitin, that could help coax animal muscle tissue into growing to edible size. Her work is funded by a research fellowship from New Harvest, a New York-based non-profit devoted to cellular agriculture. In fact, she's the first PhD student to win the New Harvest fellowship.
Natalie gave me a tour of the Kaplan lab, and then we sat down for the hour-long interview reproduced here. I condensed her story into a segment for Soonish Episode 1.05, Meat Without the Moo. Check it out!