Plant-based proteins are the hottest food trend in recent years, driven by a desire for more sustainable, cruelty-free foods. But some researchers are going further, using innovative technologies to develop meat without animals at all.
Futuristic fiction has long envisioned animal-free meat. That vision is close to realization. Science has scoped out the broad picture; there is now enough knowledge in the fields of cell culture, stem cell biology, tissue engineering, fermentation, and chemical and bioprocess engineering to grow meat in the laboratory.
The devil, however, is in the details. Though costs have come down an amazing 99% since the first lab-grown meat was developed in 2013, cellular meat isn’t yet able to compete economically with conventional meat. Challenges are being addressed at every level of production to bring those costs down.
Animal-Free Meat Starts with Cells
Various types of cells, such as muscle, fat, vascular, bone, blood, and connective tissue, can be collected from an animal without harming it. Someday, we may be able to eat a steak while looking online at the living cow from which these meat cells were originally drawn. Such will be the level of traceability this new industry could offer.
Cells may also be purchased from a cell bank. Cell banks of animal tissue are not well developed yet; the Sustainable Seafood Initiative, a partnership between Good Food Institute and Kerafast, is one of many efforts to create and maintain tissue storage for cellular agriculture.
The chosen cells are treated in various ways. The cells may be induced to grow better outside the animal, or ‘immortalized’ to self replicate indefinitely rather than being periodically replaced. Some producers plan to genetically modify tissue, perhaps to optimize nutrition for the end consumer. Other start-ups in the field state they intend to produce non-GMO products.
There is a decades-long history of research on mouse, hamster, human and other cell lines, but such research on agricultural animals, including fish, has barely begun. How best to grow them, how fast they’ll multiply, how genetically stable they will turn out to be, and a vast number of other questions are just beginning to be answered.
Cells are then Cultivated
Once the desired cell strain is ready, it is placed in a cultivator. This device, also called a bioreactor, is similar in appearance and function to a beer fermenter. The cultivator houses the cells in a sterile environment and maintains food delivery, O2, temperature, pH, etc. while allowing the growth and condition of the cells inside to be monitored.
Inside the cultivator, the cells live in a liquid medium of glucose, inorganic salts, vitamins, minerals, lipids, and amino acids: everything cells receive when inside a healthy animal. Then, specific combinations of growth factors, hormones, recombinant proteins & antioxidants are introduced, timed to promote maintenance, multiplication, differentiation & organization of cells.
Development of cultivators suited to cellular agriculture is an area of intense exploration and investment. Cultivators are in use now for medical and scientific research, and cosmetic and pharmaceutical product manufacture. As the industry develops, design improvements and commercial capacity will evolve. Companies like CellulaREvolution and collaborations such as CMMC are actively exploring improvements in bioreactor design. Eventually, cultivators could become specialized to particular consumer markets, from very high capacity commercial applications down to the size needed for a restaurant, or even for use at home.
The costs of these components is one of the biggest challenges this technology faces. Fetal bovine serum was used as a growth medium in earlier lab-grown meat experiments, but the industry is committed to non-animal-origin fluids, and the field is being heavily researched and incentivized. For example, the XPrize Foundation will award $2M to the team that produces the best animal free growth medium product at the lowest cost.
The Netherlands has recently announced a major investment in cellular agriculture, as part of a growth plan proposed by the Cellulaire Agricultuur Nederland consortium. This group supports the harvesting of animal stem cells through a painless biopsy, allowing animals to live happy, healthy, free-range lives. Microorganisms can then be used to create milk through precision fermentation, or companies like Mosa Meat, a founding member of the consortium, can naturally grow meat cells into healthy, organic beef without animals. The investment will be used to improve education, research, and innovation, as well as improving the ability of companies like Mosa Meat to scale up production, and integrate farmers and consumers into the cellular agriculture ecosystem. Such investments benefit human health as well as the environment.
Add Growth Structures
To grow structured cuts of meat, like steaks and filets, cells require a scaffold to guide their alignment. Scaffolds may be made from proteins like zein, or polysaccharides such as chitosan or cellulose, or fungal mycelium. Tissue engineers and cell biologists are investigating a number of potential scaffold materials. Scaffolds may dissolve as the cells grow around them. Or they may remain in the harvested product, creating a hybrid food. That’s the strategy of Israel-based Future Meat.
Whichever substance is used, it must be edible and safe, without compromising the taste or texture of the harvested meat. Choice of scaffolding might affect how the product is labeled, prepared, and regulated. Companies like Matrix Meats specialize in this segment of the product chain.
Harvest the Meat Cells
After two to eight weeks in the cultivator, the bioreactor contents are centrifuged. Growth time will vary for steaks, filets, and other more structured products. The media can be recycled, while the meat is harvested. Minced products like ground beef, sausages, or nuggets might be seasoned, shaped or extruded.
The future of food is here. This technology holds terrific promise of huge shifts in culture, economics, and environment. Businesses all along this production chain will need the best talent to take advantage of exciting opportunities, and grapefrute can deliver that talent. Contact grapefrute for help recruiting the next generation of researchers, scientists, and biologists that make animal-free meat possible.