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News that maverick venture capitalist Peter Thiel dumped 20 million Facebook shares – about $400m worth – last week was accompanied by an announcement about a small investment he made around the same time: in a printable meat company. Looks like biotech company Modern Meadow's ambition to print out a "pork sheet" is more interesting to investors than Facebook's mission to get everyone liking photos. Was there ever any doubt?

Thiel, one of Facebook's earliest investors, pulled $400m out of the social network by selling off most of his remaining shares when the lock-out ended last week, but around the same time put up to $350,000 into Missouri-based biotech start-up Modern Meadow by way of a grant from his BreakOut Labs fund.

Modern Meadow's vision of the future food sources of mankind goes beyond the old grow-a-steak-in-a-vat idea, by making use of the intrinsic capabilities of printing and printers. The biotech company describes it as "computer-controlled delivery of cells in three dimensions" in its submission to the US government's funding bodies.

The core idea is based around research on blood vessel transplants. While investigating growing organs at a previous bioprinting company, chief scientific officer Gabor Forgacs was drawn to work on growing replacement veins and arteries.

And it's the research with blood vessels in particular that has led to the breakthrough with print-out meat.

By layering cell pastes on a structure of filler material made of agar gel, Forgac believes he is able to create veins in the lab, which can then have muscle, fat and fibroblast cells layered on top of that, allowing the group to create artificial meat that is more steak and less burger.

His innovative technique is outlined in Patent 8,143,055, 'Self-assembling multicellular bodies and methods of producing a three-dimensional biological structure using the same' awarded in March this year.

During earlier work growing veins in the lab, scientists experienced problems with the removal of "scaffolds", thus damaging the cell. Printing gets around those problems... and apparently improves the taste. The submission to the US govt says:

The technology has several advantages in comparison to earlier attempts to engineer meat in vitro. The bio-ink particles can be reproducibly prepared with mixtures of cells of different type. This allows for control in composition that enables the engineering of healthy products of great variety. Printing ensures consistent shape, while post-printing structure formation and maturation in the bioreactor facilitates conditioning. As meat is a post mortem tissue, the vascularization of the final product is less critical than in medical applications (although important for taste an objective to be further pursued in Phase II).

The goal is to print out a sheet of pork:

The two aims that will be pursued in this Phase I application are 1) to fabricate 3D cellular sheets composed of porcine cells and 2) to mature the cellular sheets into muscle tissue and measure its meat characteristics.

The pork sheet - made of muscle cells - could end up in all sorts of meaty delicacies: "The ultimate product that will be developed based on the proposed studies is an animal muscle strip that can be used as minced meat for the preparation of sausages, patties and nuggets," the submission reads.

The printer itself will have "bio-ink" cartridges which contain cells of different sorts suspended in gels - muscle cells, fibroblasts and fatty adipocytes - and can be applied in computer-controlled sychrony. Once it has been "printed", the proto-steak will be established in a bioreactor where it will be grown and shaped.

The pork sheet will be electrically stimulated in the bioreactor chamber to help the formation of different types of muscle. The muscle tissue once created will be assessed for texture and composition.

The Breakout Labs fund said it was drawn to Modern Meadow because the biotech lab's pork sheets are tackling the global problem of the human desire for protein:

Modern Meadow is combining regenerative medicine with 3D printing to imagine an economic and compassionate solution to a global problem," said Lindy Fishburne, the Breakout Labs fund's executive director. "We hope our support will help propel them through the early stage of their development, so they can turn their inspired vision into reality. ®

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