The AAAS meeting rounded off with a look at how on Earth we’re going to feed increasing numbers of people who are developing a greater taste for pork, chicken and beef. Currently, livestock takes up 30% of the world’s farmland – both in grazing land and crops for feed – and with global consumption of meat expected to almost double by 2050 a solution is urgently needed. That’s where Mark Post, professor of angiogenesis in tissue engineering at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands, steps up. He wants to use tissue cultures to turn a mush of cells into a product that’s indistinguishable from a 16oz steak. However, steaks are complex with their taste and texture depend on a complex mix of a good blood supply and exercise to create firm, lean muscle tissue. As steak is a tough place to start, Post has been trying to make sausages, which he says are ‘barely recognisable as a meat product!’. He’s also looking at creating burgers using his tissue culture technique. He thinks that one of the first burgers he’ll make will cost $200,000 – a bit pricey for all but Bill Gates, but he’s sure that this price tag can be driven down.

Later in the afternoon Bob Root-Bernstein at Michigan State University gave a great presentation on the origins of life. He talked about the idea of molecular complementarity being the chemical starting point that helped put inanimate molecules on the road to forming life. Molecular complementarity is where two distinct chemicals, which could be very different, can reversibly to bind to each other. Root-Bernstein says that when people think of molecular complementarity they often think of large molecules like DNA. He says that when we think about the origins of life we need to think about small molecules coming together; and when they come together they can raise or lower the activation energy of reactions. Glutathione, for instance, can bind to glycine-glycine and protect it from destruction by UV light. These types of reactions could link up to form modules, and he theorises that these modules may have led to certain chemicals being favoured over others in the primordial soup. He points out that hints that this occurred throughout the evolution of life can still be seen today. Insulin, which regulates glucose, has motifs that allow it to bind to the sugar. Insulin can also aggregate into a hexameric barrel, and this could have been the genesis of the first glucose transporter. Even today, similar glucose-binding motifs to those found on insulin can be seen on glucose transporters and receptors. Clearly there’s lots of ifs and maybes here, but it’s a fascinating theory nonetheless.

Root-Bernstein says that he now hopes to search for chemical modules by re-running the Miller-Urey experiments, but increasing their complexity and bringing analytical tools to bear on the products that just weren’t available 60 years ago.

Patrick Walter

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