Labs are the New Farms
Cellular Agriculture & Cultured Meat: Alternative Protein Guide Part 1
It’s 6 am. I’m on the phone with Ira Van Eelen, daughter of the inventor of lab-grown meat, and 12 minutes in we’ve already arranged that I’m coming to Amsterdam to work with her.
Researching food tech has been such a journey and I feel empowered to constantly learn more. Well, it’s actually not just a personal adventure anymore; it’s a mission.
I’ve learned that we kinda suck at making food. Truth is that we haven’t really had to be good at it. We love eating meat — especially from large mammals (cows, goats, sheep, pigs) and it’s still relatively inexpensive despite being so inefficient. For example, for every 100 calories of food we feed a cow, 🐄 Mr.Moo only produces 3 calories of meat for us.
Dammit, Mr.Moo, why are you only 3% efficient?!
Where else in the world would we accept something that’s 3% efficient???? At least he has a cool name!
Yes, cows & animals are extremely inefficient at doing the job we’ve imposed upon them. — producing tasty calories. On top of being terrible at that, they produce a heck ton of greenhouse gas, while, consuming vast amounts of land & water.
Here’s a fun tidbit. A guy who famously got rich by predicting the 2008 housing market collapse (aka good at predicting predicaments) now invests his wealth in water innovation (because our water use is ↑, but our water management is 👎)..
Since food, especially meat, is an undeniable waster of water, we should listen to Mr.predicament and get better at using water (among an extensive list of other things)
The craziest part is we already have many solutions to the problem of food production. If we have the solutions, why do we still have farms and animals? I’ll attempt to explain the solution(s) and the current problems with the implementation of cultured meat systems.
Your one-stop-shop for food tech*
*snacks not provided.
Ready… set… 🚀
There are a TON of interesting topics to explore in foodtech, but just to lay the lamb, here’s what I won’t be talking about (or atleast, things I will only briefly mention):
- Cultured fish
- Building of bio-reactor systems
- Taste engineering
Here’s what I will talk about:
- Stem cells
- Growth Media
- Main Challenges
Without further ado, let’s talk…
Cell-based (aka lab-grown, aka cultured, aka clean) meat uses 99% less land, 96% less GHG and up to 96% less water (stock market predictor dude look here!!!!). My goal is to explain why this is real meat, and how the technology works.
What is meat?
Animal muscle is roughly 75% water, 20% protein, and 5% fat and carbohydrates.
Muscle is a collection of cells called myofibrils, but that could also be called a myofiber. It has 2 main proteins: actin and myosin.
Here’s a deeper look at 1 myofibril:
So really, meat is water (hydrogen & oxygen), protein (amino acids) and fat (glycerol & fatty acids).
Before we start digging into the “why cultured meat is real meat” and “how it’s the solution to our animal shenanigans”, we’ll need some basis.
Note: for the remainder of the article, I’ll be using the name cultured meat. It could be called clean meat, lab-grown meat, in-vitro meat…the list goes on. The actual name doesn’t really matter, because as you’ll soon know it’s “just” meat (fun fact: that’s where JUST, [a sustainable foodtech company] got its name).
What is cultured meat ?
Cultured meat is made using this recipe:
- Capture stem cells with the potential to become muscle tissue [step 1]
- Convince the cells to grow and proliferate [step 2]
- Induce cells to form fiber structures [step 3]
- Clean the muscle tissue cells (in preparation for cooking) and add any other necessary cells (e.g., fat cells) to create a tasty product[step 4]
1–3 is replicating a process called myogenesis which creates muscle tissue.  is about creating the 5% fat + flavour we love.
Haha… I didn’t leave you hanging, here’s what myogenesis means:
It starts with a cell that has the potential to be muscle tissue, and if fed the right nutrients, it’ll continue proliferating and differentiating into myotubes. These tubes are then combined to create myofibers, which then combine to make tasty tissue.
I’ll be going into each of the steps in the cultured meat process in the next few paragraphs. But, before continuing here’s the vocab you should latch onto:
Myogenesis: the development of muscle tissue
myocyte : muscle cell
Anything w/ myo in the name: refers to some cell on its journey to become muscle tissue
Adipogenesis: process of creating mature fat cells
adipocytes: fat cells
differentiation: when cells become “specialized” (e.g., go from a stem cell to a heart cell)
Stem cell: blank canvas cells (un-specialized) that can divide and differentiate into specialized cells
iPS cell (induced pluripotent stem cell): Special type of stem cell that can regenerate indefinitely, and become any cell in the body (sometimes referred to as magic)
culturing: to grow something
scaffold: a material that helps the myocytes develop a 3D structure. Think of it like the walls of the house, without them, your house would be a 2D structure.
FBS (fetal bovine serum): an ingredient used in culturing cells however it is extremely expensive and is a bi-product of animal slaughter (which makes it unethical for cultured meat).
Bio-reactor tank: Tank system similar to those used in beer breweries to grow cultured meat.
cell potency: cell’s ability to differentiate into other cell types
These words will help you understand the next section 🤓.
What types of cells do we grow?
Cultured meat can be grown from any stem cell with the potential to become muscle tissue. Some of them are easier than others.
The most common type of cell used in cultured meat is a muscle stem cell called a myosatellite stem cell.
These cells are multipotent meaning they can only become muscle cells (and not heart, nerve or other cells in the body).
Being multipotent also means they abide to the Hayflick limit — that is that they eventually stop replicating 😓.
These are the most used cells in labs because they’re the easiest to control. The fate of the myosatellites is already determined: they will become muscle cells. Now all that’s left to do is to make their fate a reality. We do this by giving them all their needed ingredients and resources.
In order to create cultured meat, we’ll need to grab some cells from inside Mr.Moo 🐮.
The 🐄 has lots of muscle tissue. Its body has special “emergency” cells on top of the muscle tissue in case it needs some extra muscle.
These emergency cells (myosatellite cells) are the ingredients for lab-grown meat. We can take a tiny-ity-bity painless muscle biopsy sample from Mr.Moo, and gather the few myosatellite cells from a top. We can take a couple cells and proliferate them to make tons of burgers.
A diagram of muscle tissue in relation to the myosatellite cells:
To get the satellite cells we use enzymes.
And that’s all for Mr.Moo’s involvement in cultured meat production. He can go back to running around and doing cow things. By the way, because of this limited involvement, we can pick the healthiest, happiest 🐄 for our meat.
Myosatellte is the most common type of cell used because of its differential predictability — that is that it will only become muscle.
HOWEVER, we can also use other cells, like iPS cells or embryonic stem cells to culture meat. These cells are pluripotent and totipotent, respectfully. This means both can become any cell in the body (with the exception of placental cells; only embryonic can become those). Their pluripotency means they don’t have a Hayflick limit (aka good luck shutting them up)... in theory 1 iPS or embryonic cell can feed the whole world and beyond.
However, they’re hard to control. There’s on-going research to control the differentiation of these cells, but proliferation is easy-peasy.
When culturing cells we need to do 2 things:
- Make them proliferate
- Make them differentiate (mature)
Recap of pros/cons
Myosatellite pros: differentiation (cells will only mature into muscle tissue)
cons: proliferation (since they’re not pluri or totipotent, they have a Hayflick limit, which is a specific number of times they can replicate… after they stop)
iPS & embryonic pros: Infinite proliferation
cons: these cells are whacky. They have a mind of their own.
Takeaway: we can use any cell with the “potential” to become muscle tissue (myosatellite/iPS/embryonic) and each come with their own kerfuffles.
Once we have a “cells” (and there is no right answer to which one), we want to actually let them proliferate and differentiate.
How do these cells differentiate & proliferate?
I’ll give you 2 answers.
Answer #1: using a growth medium
Cells can’t go hungry. They need fuel. To give them this we soak them in a bath of “growth medium”, with these properties:
- Affordable & available in large quantities
- Supports proliferation
- Supports differentiation
- Amino acid & nutrient-rich
- No allergen risks for the general population
)ur medium being used right now contains FBS (an animal-based serum). This, my friend, has a hefty price tag. (AKA it is a no-go).
Some FBS (costs 318 USD/200 ml) alternatives have been:
- Ultroser G: 1900 USD/200 ml (and has been used to grow rat myocytes and human myocytes) … so a little more pricy
- Amino Acid Rich Mushroom Extract: Price = unknown
- Soybean lecithin extract: 1280USD/ 200 mg (this has only been used to culture sperm cells)
Cultured meat may have evolved from medicine, but they are distinct industries.
It’s like using socks as gloves! Kinda works… but not really.
Put short: medical lab-work is not set to scale, so we have to be intentional about diverging these fields (aka they have different priorities).
We’re making food which has completely different challenges than other forms of tissue engineering (say, making skin… unless you like to eat expensive skin). The cultured meat industry needs its own suppliers of products and metrics for success.
Takeaway: we need a new serum.
Note: The two things we need the cells to do is differentiate and proliferate. These are two extremely different tasks that require different nutrients/chemicals. We might actually use two medias (one for each task). One of the challenges of cultured meat is 💰so, deciding between 1 medium or 2 medias or x medias will depend on their efficiency and economics.
Along with developing a new serum to grow cells, a hot topic of research is recycling mechanisms to implement in bio-reactor tanks. Again, this is so we can make commercial products cheaper.
Answer #2: a circulatory system
Cells need oxygen, nutrients and all the jazz you learned about in grade 7 science. They also have waste products produced by metabolism (i.e.,CO2 and lactate) which need to be removed.
No scalable system exists to do this yet.
In the body of animals, there’s blood vessels. These underrated systems keep our cells alive.They deliver nutrients and remove waste.
Right now, we’re using diffusion to feed the cells. This is why we’ve only been able to make cultured hamburgers or thin sheets of meat.
An on-going problem is making thicker structures (like steaks) because at a certain point diffusion stops working. Another area of research is developing artificial blood vessels. The University of Colorado Boulder is working on this (but, again, it’s for medical purposes).
Here’s how I like to think about it:
So really, this is the growth system:
Takeaway: we also need to create some form of circulation of materials (diffusion is SO out-of-style).
How do the cells form structures?
One method is by forming 3D structures (i.e., meat) is using scaffolds. Before I explain them, one important thing to understand is how cells grow.
Cells like surfaces. So, when we culture meat, they will grow in thin 2D strips, unless we help them otherwise.
How many Big-Macs have you eaten that are 1-cell-line thick?
Since cells love surfaces, scaffolds are there to create more surfaces; growth looks more like this:
This work of cell layering is also at the beginning of its days; our scaffold techniques aren’t sophisticated enough for something like cultured steak. We still need to get better at controlling structures.
And… there’s another problem. Diffusion. (Dammit, again??!)…A cell needs to be 200 microns from nutrients; meaning cultured meat products can be maximum 200 microns… or the width of a human hair thick.
So, here’s the deal:
Since diffusion is a picky bastard, we’re going to need to develop that circulatory system (artificial blood vessels) to feed cells. In the meantime, we’ll still need to improve our scaffold-ability (especially to work with this system). One fascinating approach is using empty plant cells (that is, their cell walls) as scaffolds. Scientists are really creative 🙌
Scaffolds are designed to replicate our body’s extra-cellular matrixes (ECMs), which are important to tissue engineering. Making scaffolds super duper important.
What’s an ECM? Well, I’ve hoped for a second that you wouldn’t ask this one. But let’s go.
An ECM is a structure of many macromolecules, like collagens, enzymes and glycoproteins that help the cells grow by providing mechanical support. In addition to growth support, ECMs also provide complex signalling molecules so the cells can chat with one-another.
ECM is a mom for the cells!
The takeaway: we need to develop structures that can create 3D tissues and we can’t rely on diffusion for nutrient delivery
Once we’ve grown the cells (myofibers) we can add other cells, like fat cells to create the full effect of meat. More on the flavour engineering another time! Here’s a resource to learn more about meat’s flavour [science-y version].
What are the challenges of Cultured Meat?
Why my dreams aren’t (yet) a reality👇
- Damn diffusion, we need blood vessels
- Serum & growth medium development is SO SLOW!
- Suitable scaffolding… the best thing we’ve got is 🌱
- Taste… duh
- Controlling pluri-or totipotent stem cells
- Consumer acceptance
- Food regulations (legally selling products)
- Building a system [1–5] that scales *
*Very important. So important it deserves an article of its own. Upcoming 💪
I feel like I’ve pretty well covered 1–3 — this is the real meat of cultured meat 😉… it’s how we make it happen (aka it’s super duper important with a cherry on top).
 Meat has 1000 flavour molecules that make up its taste. There are many variables we can tweak when making cultured meat. From the contents of the medium, to the way we clean out the cells to prepare for cooking. What JUST does AWESOMELY is keep knowledgable chefs near the scientific lab where they can help improve the flavour. Who knows food better than chefs? Cooking is science (with room for art).
2 more tasty things to note:
- Aroma is another large factor to how the brain perceives/creates flavour. There’s a fun word (and science) for smell-flavour-perception: neurogastronomy
- The growth medium we use has a direct correlation to taste because that medium is the cell’s inputs (yet another example of how crucial medium/media development is)
 Controlling iPS & >multipotent cells is an interesting area of study; two companies working with iPS cells are super meat and higher steaks where they are trying to crack supervising cellular differentiation.
[6–7] Customers & governments = predicament 👇
The main metrics for customer acceptance:
- Taste and nutrition (since they’re designing meat from the cellular level they have full control over the nutrients, fat content, etc.)
- Consitency (“Can we make a good product every time”)
- Price lab meat ≤price conventional meat
- Regulations being safe and reasonable (tracking these products to ensure safety)
The first three (👆)can be solved with advancements in science (with advancements in: scaffolds, medium, circulatory systems and bioreactor labs).
Hi Governments, regulations (lucky number 4) are powered by you...as well as organizations like Kind Earth Tech (KET) working on implementing systems to track quality.
The Netherlands is a country known for its #fridaysforthefuture and eco-friendly people. I was SHOCKED to hear that even with thousands of kids protesting alongside Geta Thunberg for the climate, the government scaled down its alternative protein representation from 7 people to half a person.
Oh dear! Qhat are we doing to the world 😍? We need more resonable and cultured-meat specific regulations.
 Now scaling this system is the real deal.
Because of the technology’s ties to the medical world, most of the scientists/researchers don’t have experience building cellular systems to scale.
But…cultured meat needs to build something scalable and tasty… I can’t remember the last time an engineered heart valve was my mid-day snack.
Therefore, there’s not enough of the right people in are cultured meat R&D right now. Scalers where you at?
So the trillion-dollar question is: how do we design systems to culture products to the public? One of the interesting approaches that has been suggested is a tesla-like model. Starting with high end products (at elite restaurants), then using the revenue to scale down to everyone.
Other researchers are developing sensors to monitor the cells in the lab which could dramatically reduce the cost of commercialization. Also for scale-up, these sensors could promote recycling of materials to reduce production costs.
But to be honest, I don’t know the right approach (yet). But I do know a good cow meme when I see one:
I’ll stop now…
Note: scaling is an extensive section, which deserves its own in-depth article. In order to produce cultured met at mass scale we’ll need bioreactor systems to grow *tasty* 3D structures of cells. It has never been economically done before, which makes it very interesting and ambiguous. I’ll be writing about this soon (be sure to follow my medium for notifications!)
Lets talk about mass for a moment.
Higgs Boson walks into a catholic church. Priest says “What are you doing here?” HB says “You can’t have mass without me” … I know this is a biology article but this physics joke was too funny.
Ok, I’m getting carried away. Back to the mission of food.
Can you FINALLY answer how this is real meat?
Here’s what happens inside the body of an animal producing meat (cow, piggy, chicken, duck, lamb, etc):
The only difference between the animals types is they’ll have different starter cells (all with the potential to become muscle tissue)
And here’s what cultured meat produces:
Similar right… 🤔
We start off with cells that have the potential to be muscle tissue in both cases; then we harness their potential. (Count the number of times I said potential in this article… lol)
It’s like a startup accelerator, but for cells.
New analogies in case the past few explanations didn’t cut it
If you had 2 identical tree seeds, planted them in two different gardens with slightly different soil contents, and let both trees grew normally, they will still both be trees because they started from the same type of seeds. They may have had slightly different soil content and nutrients absorbed by the roots… one might even be taller than the other, but they’re both still trees.
Culturing meat starts with the same “seed” but grows it in different environments with similar variables (i.e., similar nutrients, similar support structures). So if you’d agree that placing a seed in any viable soil still makes a tree, then cultured meat is just meat grown in slightly different soil.
TL;DR: cultured meat has the same origin as “conventional” meat.
The rewind — Cultured Meat Summarized
Cultured meat has tons of opportunity to solve our seemingly intractable paradox — we love eating meat, but as a species, we can’t really afford it
Now you’re an insider of the industry.
The recipe to culturing meat:
- Grab your stem cells
- Give it the “resources” (growth medium, scaffolds, circulation system, sensors, recycling mechanism, bioreactors, etc)
- House it in the tank system to let the cells proliferate and differentiate
- (When ready) clean out the cells and prepare them for adding in fat, and making em’ yummy!
As I mentioned earlier one of the biggest problems is: tracking nutritional value, ensuring products are consistent and as good (or better) than their animal counterparts.
Super stoked to be helping out with newprotein.org…
We may or may not be solving that... 🤓
Thanks for tuning into the Guide to Alternative Protein Part 1👩🍳! I’ll be publishing a series of guides over the next few weeks. You can subscribe to my newsletter for updates on my progress and publications.
Hint for the next guide: 🐠 ;)
👋BTW — I’m a 15-year-old living in the Netherlands for a month because of my passion for the future-of-food which brought me here. 10 months ago, I watched this exact talk and I entered the Internet rabbit hole of food-tech.