Welcome to the (Synthetic) Meatspace

Midway through The Matrix, Cypher glides a knife through an enormous steak, gazes at the hunk of meat dangling off his fork, and acknowledges that his reality is not, well, real. That steak is a construct, part of a digital program telling his brain that it is “juicy and delicious.” Angry and disillusioned with the harsh, scorched real world, Cypher asks for safe passage back to a virtual one, where he’ll once again be fed a steady stream of preprogrammed electrical signals to be interpreted by his mind as a luxurious experience.

That scene stayed with me, back in 1999, after the credits rolled and I exited a Tokyo movie theater not too far from Akihabara, a dense hub for vendors selling electronics, video games, and experimental displays, all of which presaged a Matrix-like future. We’d escape into a digitized reality, using headsets or wires, to frolic in virtual landscapes.

Two decades later, something unexpected looms: The future of reality will be virtual, yes, but also synthetic. Starting with components from the natural world—DNA, more basic molecules, cells–scientists are already altering biology, performing a kind of alchemy that allows these materials to serve a new or better purpose. Cypher’s future meal will not be a digital construct but a physical one, synthesized from animal cells.

And scientists are synthesizing more than just dinner. The opportunities for breakthroughs in medicine, human performance, and materials science are enormous. But biology has a tendency to evolve in unexpected ways. Our new designs for life have the potential to morph into unrecognizable mutations of what we see today, leading to a cascade of unintended consequences.

The forces driving the synthesized meat movement are practical. Modern agricultural systems are helping destabilize Earth’s climate and ecosystems, while extreme weather events add immense uncertainty to farming and ranching. Scientists at Oxford and the University of Amsterdam have estimated that cultured meat would require 7 to 45 percent less energy, occupy 99 percent less land, and produce 78 to 96 percent less greenhouse gas than conventional animals farmed for consumption.

A synthetic-biology-centered food supply mitigates greenhouse emissions in other ways too. For one thing, it promises to shrink the distance between various operators in the supply chain. Once eaten only in Japan, sushi now requires a CO2-intensive operation of commercial fishing grounds, fishermen, freezers, temperature-controlled airplanes, and refrigerated trucks to bring raw fish to the masses. Synthetic tuna would remove most of those steps while coming close to the real thing; Finless Foods, based in California, is already developing cultured bluefin tuna meat. In the next decade, large bioreactors might be situated just outside major cities, producing cultured meat to be used by schools, hospitals, and perhaps even restaurants and grocery stores. Sea life currently threatened by overfishing could once again flourish in our oceans.

But once we’re able to synthesize meat, we’ll face a novel regulatory challenge. Theoretically, we’ll have the capability to culture meat from any animal, which means that some people will choose to culture and consume animals we’d never consider eating today because of their high level of intelligence, like dolphins, chimpanzees, and elephants. Someone, somewhere, might just attempt to make cocker spaniel kebabs, which, technically, will fall outside the jurisdiction of current regulatory agencies. A ban on certain synthetic meats might go into effect, but a black market and an underground speakeasy scene for thrill-seeking diners would potentially emerge.

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