Chart: When Will We Eat Hamburgers Grown in Test Tubes?

The long-road to yesterday's test-tube burger debut in London, and beyond
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InVitroMeatComplete.png

A couple people ate some hamburger in London yesterday. Not generally noteworthy, except that the burger cost $330,000 to produce and the meat was grown in a lab, not a cow. It was flavored with salt, breadcrumbs, and egg powder; red beet juice and saffron gave the cells a meatier hue. It's the first in-vitro burger ever created (though some artistic antecedents exist).

Cattle stem cells were cultured on scaffolding, which is required to give the meat something like the texture we're used to in our animal proteins. This is an immensely difficult and expensive task, as biologist Christina Agapakis pointed out last year. Nonetheless, the burger marks a major milestone for Mark Post, a biologist at the University of Maastricht, who has been working in this area of tissue engineering for many years.

Ever since I started following in-vitro meat at Wired six years ago, I've noticed a trend. Each time there's a media moment about test tube burgers, dozens of writers discover the existence of this corner of science and get an expert make a prediction about "when we'll see this kind of meat on supermarket shelves," or whatever.

This time around, Reuters got Post to predict commercialization in 20 years, but there have been many other types of forecasts. My intuition was that the predictions were always just far enough into the future to make them checking them unlikely. So I made this chart with some help from my memory, Google News, and Lexis Nexis, so that we can all keep track going forward; the data's embedded below and linked here.

What's it show? Well, most of the short-term predictions have underestimated how long any individual milestone might take to reach. As the burger demonstrates, the technology is advancing, but very slowly, and the commercialization horizon hasn't really gotten any closer over the last eight years. In fact, it may have receded.

The predictions varied widely in specificity, too. In the chart above, I always translated "a few years" as three years, exactly. It may not surprise you that none of the predictions using fuzzy language have been close to on-target.  

There is a broader trend in the prediction data, too. While most prognostications in the early days were about the kinds of meat that might become available (burgers vs steaks), more recent ones have focused on when these types of products could become available to consumers.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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