By Tova Cohen and Eric Auchard
TEL AVIV/FRANKFURT (Reuters) - Two years after scientists cooked up the first test tube beef hamburger, researchers in Israel are working on an even trickier recipe: the world's first lab-grown chicken.
Professor Amit Gefen, a bioengineer at Tel Aviv University, has begun a year-long feasibility study into manufacturing chicken in a lab, funded by a non-profit group called the Modern Agriculture Foundation which hopes "cultured meat" will one day replace the raising of animals for slaughter.
The foundation's co-founder Shir Friedman hopes to have produced "a recipe for how to culture chicken cells" by the end of the year.
The researchers say their task is more difficult than producing the first lab-grown hamburger, a $300,000 beef patty cooked up at Maastricht University in the Netherlands after five years of research financed by Google co-founder Sergey Brin.
Rather than gathering small fibers of cow muscle into one big chunk of meat, Gefen will try to make a whole piece of chicken, starting from a single cell.
Animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals offered a $1 million prize to the first lab able to use chicken cells to create commercially viable test tube meat, but the 2014 deadline passed without anyone laying claim.
Gefen, an expert in tissue engineering, said the plan is to culture chicken cells and let them divide and multiply. In previous research he used growth factors extracted from tumors to stimulate cells, but this is not appropriate for food.
Demand for meat is expected to double between 2000 and 2050, when the earth's population is set to surpass 9 billion, and proponents of growing meat in the lab say it is the only way to meet such demand without destroying the environment.
According to a study by Oxford University and the University of Amsterdam, cultured meat would produce 96 percent less greenhouse gas, consume 82 to 96 percent less water and virtually eliminate land requirements needed to raise livestock.
"In the not so distant future we will look back at how we used to raise cows and chickens and put so much effort into getting a small piece of meat," Friedman said.
Some big name investors are entering the field. Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang and Asia's wealthiest man Li Ka-shing have invested in Hampton Creek, which is creating plant-based substitutes for eggs. Microsoft's Bill Gates and Twitter founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone have backed a company called Beyond Meat. PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel has backed Modern Meadow, which creates food from tissue engineering.
Growing chicken in a lab would be a big step. It accounts for nearly a third of the world’s total meat, second behind pork, which it is expected to overtake sometime in the next decade, according to an OECD report.
(Editing by Peter Graff)