Invention: Burger fails, but science gains

The petri-dish patty.
Associated Press
The petri-dish patty.

A hamburger synthesized by Dutch researchers using only lab-grown meat was an expensive science fair product that was bound to please no one, at least initially. The researchers are exploring how to create new supplies of meat by manipulating stem cells — a goal lofty enough to persuade Google cofounder Sergey Brin to back the $325,000 burger project. Yet some commentators bristled at the cost. Others argued that it would be healthier simply to encourage people to eat less meat. Meanwhile, people who sampled the synthetic beef at a London restaurant complained of a lack of taste or texture.

But those critics should keep in mind that even far-fetched experiments often lead to unexpected benefits. An effort to create a substitute for shellac led to plastic. A chemist’s failed attempt to develop a strong glue led to the now-ubiquitous yellow sticky notes. Similarly, the test-tube meat project may never yield an acceptable hamburger, but it’s almost sure to yield something.