interview by Heather Smith
This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue Ten.
DREAMS OF GINGERBREAD HOUSES and chocolate palaces are a dime a dozen. Fantasies of living in a pork chop: less so. Which is why the In Vitro Meat House, though it looks like a yam with surgical tubing stuck in it, is worth a closer look. Mitchell Joachim, founder of Terreform, the group responsible for its design, was kind enough to answer a few of Meatpaper’s more urgent questions about the domestication of the flesh.
So tell us the story of how the meat house began.
MITCHE LL JOACHIM: The story of the meat house began with the PETA prize. PETA offered $1 million to anyone who could demonstrate a major breakthrough in solving the human consumption of meat by coming up with a market-ready lab-grown meat product. We thought, “Well, it depends on how you define human consumption of meat. And meat product.”
But no one is actually building houses out of dead cows.
MJ : We never really thought PETA would go for it. They had all these other, very specific parameters that clearly excluded a meat house. But it was the source of the idea.
What has the response been like?
MJ : The response has been good. Which is surprising. People tend to make fun of us for the other things we’ve designed. Like the Fab Hab Living Tree House. That was built out of a latticework of living plants that grew around a prefab framework. People called us elves. Keebler Elves. Stephen Colbert specifically called me an elf.
But build a house out of meat, huh? Why do you think people would be more into that?
MJ : You tell me.
The design should be based on the materials. Form follows function. It would be absurd to make a meat house that looked like a Victorian.
If it’s grown around a framework that you’ve designed, why did you choose to make it look the way it does?
MJ : The design should be based on the materials. Form follows function. It would be absurd to make a meat house that looked like a Victorian.
But does something made of meat necessarily have to be biomorphic and blob-shaped?
MJ : Not necessarily. We can be creative. I’ve had some great conversations about hypothetical designs where, say, the windows would be made out of sphincter cells.Which we can’t do yet.
Does the house have a skeletal system?
MJ : No. No nervous system. No skeletal system. It’s built on a plastic framework.
So is keeping the house alive difficult?
MJ : Oh. The house is dead. There was no way that we could keep it alive outside the incubator.
How did you know that the house died? Was it warm, and then cold? Did it grow mold?
MJ : It was just this indefinable moment. We opened the incubator, and it was alive, and a few minutes later … we could just tell. And then it changed color.
Well, if it’s dead now, why does it still have that plastic feeding tube in it?
MJ: That’s flair. It’s like making a sketch and leaving the pencil marks.
So, while the house was alive, what did you feed it?
MJ: We fed it alluvial gel.
What’s alluvial gel?
MJ: You know, I think you should really talk to Oliver. Oliver Medvedik. He’s the scientist on the project.
* * * * *
So Mitchell told me to ask you, how did you keep the house alive? What did you feed it?
OLIVER MEDVEDIK: We didn’t feed the house.
What do you mean? Wouldn’t the house need some kind of food supply while it was growing?
OM: It was never alive. We made it out of jerky. Or rather, we had our assistant make it out of jerky.
But Mitchell told us that you had a lab and an incubator and everything.
OM: Well, it’s a new lab, and the lab wasn’t finished then. And this science is expensive. So it can cost thousands of dollars just to grow a few inches.The real-world application for this right now is growing new organs, or parts of new organs, for people who need them.
And then there’s the fact that regenerative medicine is the only field that has perfected this, and they’re being coy about how they do it.
So, growing an actual meat house that people could live in … ?
OM: It would be completely impossible. It needs to be grown in a clean room environment, and we’re limited by the size of a HEPA filter — everything we build has to fit into an 18 by 18 space. And then it would need to be fed and watered. It would need to be shielded from the elements because it’s just simple pig cells — it doesn’t have any organs or immune system to plug into.
We knew that we couldn’t keep even a demo model alive after what happened to SymbioticA. They’re a group in Australia who grew a tiny leather jacket out of immortalized cell lines. They tried to keep it alive, but it died en route to an exhibition.
So do you ever think about eating the model?
OM : I wouldn’t eat it. There’s nothing bad in it, but just the thought of eating it makes me worry. It smells terrible. It smells like moist wood.
* * * * *
So Oliver tells me that the meat house is actually built out of jerky. Is this true?
MITCHELL JOACHIM : Well, yes. We just grew a small sample on a PET scaffolding out of an immortal cell line to prove that we could do it. Then we built the model out of jerky. It’s called a proof of concept.
What kind of jerky?
M J : That I don’t know.
And why not just grow the whole model?
M J : Because the model is about the size of a football. To grow the whole thing would cost about $85,000. Growing the sample cost us about $3,000. And that was just a few centimeters.
Well, I guess if I had $85,000, growing a meat house the size of a football might not be the first thing I would spend it on.
M J : [Silence]
Or, I don’t know. Maybe I would.
M J : The wristwatch. If we had $85,000, we’d probably grow that. Oliver’s really excited about it. Luminescent bacteria for the LED display. Immortal pig cells for the watch itself. You could just lift up this flap of skin and see what time it was. It might even grow into your wrist.
Sounds lovely. Thank you so much for your time.
M J : You’re welcome.
HEATHER SMITH is a Meatpaper editor.