Skip to content

When you choose to publish with PLOS, your research makes an impact. Make your work accessible to all, without restrictions, and accelerate scientific discovery with options like preprints and published peer review that make your work more Open.


Cultivated Meat? Let Them Eat Snake

Biotechnology has solved many problems, from recombinant DNA and monoclonal antibody-derived drugs, to gene therapy and stem cell transplants, to RNA-based vaccines and genetically modified plants that resist diseases and pesticides.

In contrast, so-called cultivated meat has been, so far, a failure.

Joe Fassler’s in-depth Opinion piece in the February 9 New York Times, The Revolution That Died on Its Way to Dinner, digests the unrealistic expectations, shortcuts, and glitches that have stymied what he envisions as “a high-tech factory housing steel tanks as tall as apartment buildings and conveyor belts rolling out fully formed steaks, millions of pounds a day — enough, astonishingly, to feed an entire nation.”

Making Meat

Cultivated meat aims to replicate flesh outside bodies. It’s not a pea-protein-packed Beyond Burger or cleverly hemoglobin-based Impossible Burger, but animal cells brewed in a soup of nutrients and hormones that steer development towards muscle, fat, and connective tissue, the result then molded into shapes resembling restaurant fare.

If we can eat such mystery foods as hot dogs, fish sticks, gyros, and chicken nuggets, why not a cultivated meat blob?

The meat mantra is that the lab-grown variety doesn’t kill animals and might counter destruction of forests to provide grazing land. Billions have been invested since 2016 in search of cultivated meat, but only a handful of products have emerged, in Singapore, the United States and Israel.

As a biologist, I can’t imagine how to replicate palatable parts of an animal body, honed over the millennia by evolution. Would cultivators coax actin and myosin filaments to knit themselves into skeletal muscle fibers in molds corresponding to the shapes of ribeye or skirt steaks? How closely does the brew of nutrients and hormones recapitulate the biochemical cascades that orchestrate cell division and differentiation as organs unfurl from unspecialized precursors? Would attempts instead result in a hodgepodge of cell types?

And then there’s the issue of scale-up. A $10,000 prototype isn’t encouraging.

If those challenges aren’t daunting enough, some efforts to cultivate meat have led to products that include mouse or rat cells. Oops! Well, they’re mammals too.

The Companies

More than 20+ companies are exploring cultured meat, including Upside Foods, New Age Eats, BlueNalu, which offers “cell-grown” bluefin tuna, and Singapore-based Shiok Meats‘ cultivated crustaceans (aka seafood).

The website for Vow helpfully lists the steps in cultivating meat:

Cell curation: We cultivate the perfect combination of cells for their ability to self renew, and for ideal flavour, texture, and aromas.”

Prepare and nourish: We add essential micronutrients that help create a tasty textured meat profile. It’s like your favourite recipe, but at a molecular level, providing quality, purity, and consistency better than any meat. Ever.

Pure nurture: We place the cells inside our climate-controlled cultivators, creating a natural course of forming muscle, fat, and connective tissue in the safest way possible.

We package them into a range of branded consumer products.”

Why Did It Have to be Snakes?

More economical than trying to replicate and tweak nature into growing steaks and sushi might be finding new sources of cultivated meat. In “Python farming as a flexible and efficient form of agricultural food security,” published in Scientific Reports, Daniel Natusch of Macquarie University in Sydney and colleagues explore the reptilian option, which is already a staple in Asia.

Snakes are great food sources. They don’t eat often, compared to chickens, cows, and goats. And 82% of the mass of a live snake can become “useable products,” the researchers write.

They analyzed the growth rates of 4,601 reticulated and Burmese pythons at two farms in Thailand and Vietnam. The animals were fed weekly on wild-caught rodents and fishmeal, and weighed and measured weekly for a year.

Both species grew rapidly, up to 46 grams (about a tenth of a pound) per day, females gaining faster than males. Growth rate in the first two months of life best predicted later body size.

The researchers also selected 58 snakes at the farm in Ho Chi Minh and fed them different proteins, including chicken, pork waste, rodents, and fishmeal. For every 4.1 grams of food consumed, the investigators could harvest 1 gram of python meat. “In terms of food and protein conversion ratios, pythons outperform all mainstream agricultural species studied to date,” the researchers write.

A bonus? About two-thirds of the snakes fasted for 20 to 127 days, while not losing much of their body mass.

And yes, snake meat tastes like chicken.

Related Posts
Back to top