Meet the biochemist who wants to save the world by making the perfect meat-free burger

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Impossible Foods
When I first met Stanford biochemist Pat Brown in 2000, he was already a star. The one-time pediatrician had shifted gear to study how the activity of thousands of genes can go awry in cancer. That work had made him a Howard Hughes Investigator – a membership only given to the most driven and creative individuals in basic medical research.

Brown was also an activist. That year, along with Nobel Prize winner Harold Varmus and biologist Michael Eisen, he began a movement to free up scientific literature. In 2003, that led to the creation of the Public Library of Science (PLOS). Anyone can read research papers published by seven different PLOS journals for free.

This was a Big Idea. But that is not the reason Brown is the hero of the Philosopher’s Corner this month; it is for his next Big Idea.

I ran into Brown in November 2016 at a US National Academies seminar where he described his newest project. It involved no less than, well, saving the world.

About 41% of all arable land, he said, is used to grow grain for livestock, while one-third of our fresh water consumption goes to meat production. Add in the use of chemicals and fuel, and the meat we consume represents one of the largest contributors to carbon, pesticides and pollutants on the planet. As our population swells to 10 billion over the next few decades, meat-eating will simply be unsustainable. This is in addition to the problem of animal suffering.

“But I like meat,” a small voice inside you is saying now. Pat knows that too. Only 2% of the global population is vegetarian. We are creatures designed to like meat.

Figuring it would be useless to do what I do – try to convince people to simply act morally – Brown quit his job at Stanford to work full-time, along with 80 other scientists, on figuring out how to engineer a hamburger-like patty that could replace beef.

Rather than take the route of growing vats of animal-derived muscle stem cells, as some other alternative meat companies have, he and his colleagues opted to go 100% plant.

Life is chemistry. Burgers are chemistry too.

The red meat colour and much of the flavour comes from haem, a molecule at the core of the blood protein haemoglobin. Soybeans make a version too, leghaemoglobin, and it is this protein that makes Brown’s burgers so bloodily realistic. His team has engineered yeast cells to manufacture it by the bucketload by inserting the soybean gene for leghaemoglobin into the yeast genome. The blood red protein is mixed with a precision formula of wheat protein and other chemicals to mimic the texture and taste of beef.

Your intrepid philosopher tried one of these burgers at a vegan restaurant in Los Angeles called Crossroads. It looked and tasted exactly like a burger from a fast food place. But the so-called Impossible Burger uses one-ninth the water, one-twelfth the land and produces one-quarter of the greenhouse gases of a beef burger.

It looked and tasted exactly like a burger from a fast food place.

Is it possible to change such a deeply entrenched industry as meat production? The history of my home town, Chicago – “hog butcher to the world” – is underpinned by rolling herds and feedlots; and, to be sure, there will be vast dislocation due to jobs lost if Brown’s plan to make meat obsolete succeeds. But potato, wheat and coconut farmers will surely gain enormously.

Brown likens the change to the introduction of automobiles: “When the first car raced a horse, the horse would win, but then it never did again.” He has made that argument to dozens of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, who have backed him with millions, because if he can get this right, there is a fortune to be made in efficient and more cheaply produced “meat”.

To turn your lab and your life to saving the planet is a remarkable act of ethics. Pat Brown and his colleagues should have our support.

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