Blood-sucking fungus takes over in vitro meat experiment

Don't worry, we pulled the plug before it started attacking humans. Dylan Lynch, a member of the multi-talented Mediator Team here at Science Gallery Dublin, documented this little biohazard — he can be found on Twitter at @DyylaanL.

Earlier this month, an experiment attempting to grow meat in a bioreactor at Science Gallery Dublin succumbed to a severe fungal infection, and the life support system had to be turned off. The experiment, titled StirFly, was part of the FIELD TEST exhibition and was created by Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr from the Tissue Culture and Art Project, in conjunction with Robert Foster. Using specially prepared insect cells, growth medium, antibiotics and foetal bovine serum — extracted from the blood of a calf — Catts and Zurr prepared a silicon bioreactor that should be able to churn out a fruit-fly “steak” in a matter of weeks, showing how we could one day be producing our own meat products on the kitchen tabletop. 

Unfortunately, the bioreactor became infected with an unidentified fungus, which began to thrive on the insect growth medium and calf blood serum, despite the large doses of antibiotics present. The staff at Science Gallery questioned whether or not the project should be allowed to continue — at this point, the fungal bloom had grown much larger, and had spread throughout the bioreactor and into the tubes and valves supplying the exhibit with nutrients.

After much deliberation, the decision was made to pull the plug and allow the experiment to die before the fungus became sentient and/or acquired a taste for humans. 

Positioned just next to the StirFly bioreactor at FIELD TEST is the first ever lab-grown beefburger — a single 140-gram meat patty created by medical doctor Mark Post and his team in the Netherlands. The team harvested muscle cells from a living cow, and nurtured these cells into muscle tissue. The same process was performed with fat tissue, and the two tissues were combined in a ratio that matches up to a biological burger.

Upon interviewing visitors to the Gallery, I found that a huge amount of people had a serious problem with the prospect of having the StirFly bioreactor in their homes, though most visitors said they’d gladly try the lab-grown burger if given the chance. It could just be that people don’t like the idea of consuming anything to do with insects (in which case, don’t ever look up what's inside of the fig part of a fig-roll), or it could be that StirFly showcases the actual difficulty and labour behind growing meat in the lab. The synthetic beef burger is a final product, and allows us to be removed from the actual growth process (as we usually are with the modern farming system) whereas with StirFly, one is invited to examine the actual preparation process and cast a critical eye on the expense and effort that goes into preparing so-called “victimless meats”.

Creator Oron Catts with the Stirfly exhibit at Field Test

The outcome of this experiment serves to highlight a massive problem with the concept of lab-grown foodstuffs — it is quite difficult to keep a bioreactor sterile in a laboratory environment, let alone in a domestic kitchen. When the installation was being prepared, the bioreactor was sterile and the materials were prepared in a laminar flow hood, used for preventing contamination. However, even with all of these precautions, pathogens still made their way into the system. If one were to attempt to culture meat at home, a much less sterile environment, the chances of successful uninfected growth would be pretty low.

This is not the first time that the work of Oron and Ionat has been featured as an art-science installation, and also not the first time that curators had to take measures to 'kill' an experiment. In 2008, they created an exhibit entitled Victimless Leather for the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York — unfortunately, it grew so fast that it was soon close to bursting out of its container. Paola Antonelli, the curator of the Design and the Elastic Mind show in which the piece was featured, decided to pull the plug. The piece was later shown at the WHAT IF? exhibition at Science Gallery Dublin a year later.

Catts and Zurr showcased their work once again at the VISCERAL exhibition, creating a living art experiment known as the Semi-Living Worry Dolls. Handcrafted using surgical sutures and polymers, these dolls were seeded with living cells that eventually replaced the polymer material to form tissue-engineered sculptures over the course of the exhibition.

With the persistent problems of infection and our own stance on “meatless meats”, it might be a while yet before we have the ability — or the stomach — to craft chicken or brew up beef in our own homes.

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