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Nation & World

Test-tube hamburger patty makes its debut

Sergey Brin’s $330,000 hamburger does not come with fries.

Or a soda.

Or, regrettably, that telltale soupcon of fat that makes a burger actually taste like a burger.

It does, however, come with a heaping side of bragging rights. Making its debut Monday at a tasting event at a London restaurant, the world’s first manufactured beef patty was created in a laboratory from a living cow’s stem cells, funded by the deep pockets of Google Inc.’s quixotic co-founder.

The burger’s backers say cultured meat could help alleviate animal cruelty while combating climate change, with lab-grown meat easing the environmental burdens of livestock production. the planet. And while those who tried it said the patty bordered dangerously close to being tasteless, its mere existence pleased animal-rights activists, stem-cell pioneers and food fetishists everywhere, not to mention millions of cows eyeing a new lease on life.

“We’re trying to create the first cultured beef hamburger,” Brin said in a videotaped message released Monday, as the world learned for the first time about his role in the project. “From there, I’m optimistic we can really scale up by leaps and bounds.”

Already known for firing off “moonshots,” the call-me-crazy projects like Google Glass, the driverless car and personal genome analysis, the 39-year-old Brin can now add the test-tube burger to his résumé.

This moonshot, Brin said, was driven by his concerns for animal welfare. In the video, he said the way animals are treated is “something I’m not comfortable with.” And he said creating alternatives like in-vitro meat makes more sense than expecting everyone to become vegetarian.

For animal-rights activist Ingrid Newkirk, PETA’s president and co-founder, the coming-out party for what some have dubbed “Frankenburger” was a cause for celebration.

“I’m so excited, I could jump for joy,” said Newkirk, noting that teams of stem-cell researchers around the world have been working on similar in-vitro food projects for more than a decade. The man that Brin put his money behind — Dutch scientist Mark Post, who produced the burger in his laboratory at the University of Maastricht — is now leading the charge.

“His burger made it first to the head of the line,” said Newkirk. “But once others get this technology down pat, you’ll be able to grow the flesh of any animal. This is a watershed moment and we have champagne corks going off all over the place.”

Echoing what Brin and other in-vitro apostles call the world-saving promise of cultured beef and other animal products, Newkirk said that “instead of the millions and billions of animals being slaughtered now, we could just clone a few cells to make burgers or chops.”

In remarks at the tasting event, Post cautioned that mass-produced cultured beef is still 10 or 20 years off. And after hearing his official tasters compare the patty to “cake” and call for salt and pepper to make up for the lack of fat flavor, he acknowledged that the burger needed work.

“There is no fat in here yet,” he said. “We’re working on that. It will take a couple of months. We all know some of the flavor comes from the fat and the juices come from the fat, but I think this is a good start.”


©2013 San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)

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