"It would look," says Dr. Vladimir Mironov, a cell biologist at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, "like a coffee machine. This is my dream."
Yet here is the thing. The object of Dr. Mironov's dreams may well look like a coffee machine, possibly even down to the satisfyingly hinged compartments and the Krups logo, but it will produce meat. The good doctor, who has made a career in the field of artificial-tissue generation, says that in the future we'll be sprinkling a few "starter cells" into our meat machine before we go to bed and adding a cup or two of "growth medium." The next morning we'll awake to an appetizing, fully formed lump of pork or beef or poultry, ready to be fried up with breakfast, or braised in time for lunch, or hurled raw across the room at an unreasonable spouse whose wrongheaded notions about pretty much everything the hours of darkness have somehow failed to dispel.
If you missed this news, that may be because it received less play in the science sections of the world's newspapers than in those slender nether pages of items about burglars getting stuck in chimneys and drunken Russian men waking up with spikes in their heads. I can only imagine that in the minds of certain editors the mention of artificial meat triggered associations with tempeh, seitan, Quorn, and other substances vegetarians have been turning up with at barbecues over the last few decades. Meat-that-isn't-really-meat, they must have thought. That's a big deal?
The big deal they missed is that this is meat that really is meat, and the implications are nothing short of thunderous.
For one thing, consider space travel. It may sound pathetic, but one of the commonly voiced obstacles to long-range space exploration is the problem of feeding astronauts in a sufficiently nutritious and entertaining way so that they don't go completely insane and instigate homicidal power contests with the onboard computer. Little squeezable sachets full of supposedly roast-chicken-flavored soy might, in a pinch, sustain a person as far as Mars, but to reach Pluto, let alone Alpha Centauri, an astronaut is going to require something resembling a cheeseburger.
When synthetic-meat technology matures, we thus are likely to pillage and plunder the universe to an extent that we cannot yet conceive. The yawning chasms of space are but trivialities to a man with a capon leg to munch on and a fax machine that doubles as a prosciutto slicer. We will probe the edges of our universe with a gusto that only a satisfied carnivore can muster. And then when we actually land on another Earth-like planet and stare up at two suns, synthetic meat will let us put down roots. I'm envisioning some sort of central dome for work and play and then an archipelago of automated meat-farm domes. Young lovers who have never known Earth shall slip away from their senior prom and yield to each other's fumbling in the moon-dappled hollow of a turkey orchard. On Saturday they shall meet discreetly in the beef dome. He will pluck a blood vessel and tuck it gently behind her ear. She will kiss him, and they will wander shyly among the tenderloins.
And we shall be thin again. The steaks and chops we use to fill our faces will have the fat content of mere salmon. Nor shall we submit any longer to disease. Salmonella, mad cow, E. coli . . . these will be consigned to the dustbin of meat history and the name pool of heavy-metal bands.
Back here on Earth, this once-gorgeous planet, now plodded and trammeled by doomed and flatulent cattle, shall see its scenery restored when billions of acres are replanted with swards of lush, sky-thickening rain forest.
Do not for a moment wonder, Will we be happy, we people? Born again into our fake-meat Eden, the answer can only be yes.
Except for some of us.