Sergey Brin, the billionaire founder of Google, has emerged as a bankroller of a project that has been dubbed the future of meat – laboratory-grown beef.
The first public tasting of a meat produced under the Dutch project took place in London on Monday. In 10 to 20 years, project leaders believe such burgers will be on supermarket shelves.
Mark Post of Maastricht university, who has been leading the research, said California-based Mr Brin had put €700,000 into cultured beef research – with the aim of finding a sustainable alternative to livestock farming – and was expecting to contribute more in the future.
The investment enabled laboratory scientists to create enough meat fibres from beef muscle stem cells to make three 140g (5oz) burgers. Each contained 20,000 muscle fibres grown in culture chambers.
Two burgers were cooked privately over the weekend. Richard McGeown, chef and patron of Couch's Great House Restaurant in Cornwall, prepared the third burger on stage at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith.
Two food writers, Hanni Rützler of Austria and Josh Schonwald from the US, were called to pronounce on its taste. The verdict was that the burger tasted meaty but was dry in texture and bland in flavour. The lab-grown beef lacks the fat that lubricates even lean meat from animals.
'The texture, the mouth feel, has a feel like meat. The absence is, I feel, the fat. There is a leanness to it. But the bite feels like a conventional hamburger. What is most conspicuous is definitely the flavour," said Mr Schonwald.
Hanni said: 'I was expecting the texture to be more soft. There is a bite to it. There is quite some intense taste. It's close to meat – it's not that juicy but the consistency is perfect."
Brin enjoys investing in futuristic science-based ventures. He has also put money into private space flight, mining asteroids, electric cars and genomics.
He told the London lab burger launch by video that he looked for a technology that "seems like it is on the cusp of viability and, if it succeeds ... can be really transformative for the world."
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The Google co-founder agreed with Prof Post that the world needed a way to produce meat that was less demanding on resources than rearing animals. "There are basically three things that can happen," he said.
"One is that we all become vegetarian. I don't think that's really likely," Mr Brin said. "The second is we ignore the issues and that leads to continued environmental harm, and the third is that we do something new."
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Prof Post said he was talking to the food industry as well as Mr Brin about funding the next stage, which would require about €10m to add natural fat cells and more red myoglobin pigment to the lab-grown beef.
Far more investment would be need to expand production and bring such beef to the market.