Overcoming the Hurdles of Cultured Meat
In 1931, Winston Churchill: “We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.” That’s right, he predicted lab-grown meat. It’s been almost 90 years since his prediction and we’re still not far into the production of lab-grown meat.
Churchill was a smart guy. In 1931, before the internet, computers and smartphones he knew that the future was in growing meat in labs. Churchill anticipated we would be able to do this within 50 years, in the 1970s. But it’s almost 2019 and lab-grown meat hasn’t hit the market and it won’t until 2021 at the earliest.
The idea of lab-grown meat is relatively old but the cellular agriculture science behind it is new. It hasn’t been until recently that we’ve started working on the production of clean meat. We’ve even begun the production of clean milk and eggs too. Regardless, there have been numerous challenges in this field of science — challenges we’re still trying to overpower.
Why Lab-grown meat?
If you fed a cow 100 pounds of protein, only 3 pounds would be available in their final product. It takes 19 000 bottles of water to make 1 kg of beef
The three main challenges of cellular agriculture start-ups are:
- The price point of products
- Consumer response + acceptability
Culturing meat requires a medium and a scaffold. The cell biopsy is first collected then placed in the medium. The medium is a nutrient-based substance that has all the growth factors and resources the cells can use to grow. After the cells start to duplicate (because they’re feeding on the nutrients of the medium) we add in scaffolds. Scaffolds are structures that guide the growth of the muscle cells into muscle tissue by providing cell support.
Let's think of it like this:
Picture cultured meat is a kitchen. The framework of the kitchen would be the scaffold (cabinets, handles, doors). The food inside the framework would be the medium. The scaffold provides support while the medium provides nutrients and growth factors.
A common medium used today is fetal bovine serum (FBS); baby cow blood.
We need to stop using the fetal bovine serum as a growth medium
I’ll give you two reasons why we shouldn’t use baby cow blood to nurture cells into clean meat:
- In order to harness the serum, you need to kill an unborn cow. This completely defeats the point of meat that is ethical and sustainable and will disrupt the market.
- It’s also incredibly expensive, making lab-grown meat expensive. If lab-grown meat is unaffordable no one is going to buy it compared to regular meat. Also defeating the point of meat that is ethical and sustainable and will disrupt the market.
Why we even need a serum
Culturing meat involves growing a small muscle tissue biopsy (a few cells) into a full tissue (trillions of cells). In order to do this, we actually need to grow the cells. Once we take the biopsy the cells don’t start duplicating naturally. Instead, we put them in a nutrient-based medium which essentially gives the cells all the necessary nutrients so they can grow. They’re tricked to thinking they’re still in the animal of origin so they duplicate like normal.
This is called mimicking organogenesis (the creation of an organ).
How Organogenesis normally happens:
During gastrulation(phase early in the embryonic development), the cells organize themselves to form 3 layers of cells (called germ layers) which are: the endoderm, the ectoderm, and the mesoderm. Once the germ layers are developed the embryonic stem cells undergo a process called differentiation. This is where the embryonic cells express a specific gene and become specialized cells and eventually will become organs.
For example, some embryonic cells in the ectoderm (most outer germ layer; responsible for exoskeleton (skin, hair, etc)) will express genes to become skin cells, and others will express genes to become hair cells. The differentiation of cells in the germ layers is what produces different organs in our bodies.
How Organogenesis happens in labs:
With tissue engineering techniques, we’re able to mimic the creation of skeletal muscle by employing the regenerative potential of myosatellite cells. Here’s how:
- A biopsy is taken of myosatellite cells (stem cells THAT only differentiate into a muscle).
- The cells proliferate and mature into myoblasts then myotubes then myofibres. The cells are placed in an environment (a medium; often FBS) where they’re given the necessary resources to grow (as if they were in an animal). They grow and duplicate like normal.
- The cells naturally differentiate into muscle because they think they’re in the body of the animal.
The cells are basically tricked into growing the muscle. Since brains don’t control muscle or organ growth we don’t need an animal brain to control organogenesis. Stem cells differentiate (into muscle, for example) due to many chemical signals. If we trick the cells into thinking they’re in the body of the animal, the chemical signals will continue.
After we grow the cells in a medium… a scaffold is added.
The main concept used to help mimic the environment to trick the cells is using a scaffold. This is an artificial extracellular matrix (ECM). ECMs are found in the body of most living things and they’re made from fibres and proteins. Their job is to help cell communication and guide cell growth/structures. A scaffold is a material that guides in-vitro cell growth. With the help of scaffolds, we are able to proliferate and mature myosatellite cells into muscle: performing organogenesis in labs.
In order for organogenesis to occur, we need to graze (feed) the cells. In order to feed the cells, we need to provide them with a medium (e.g. fetal bovine serum) so they can get all the food they need to grow and duplicate.
The solution is obvious: use a plant-based medium
Obvious, yes. We can’t use fetal bovine serum even if it does a good job of growing the cells. It’s too expensive and it’s unscalable.
Simple, no. There isn’t an ideal alternative to fetal bovine serum, yet.
Researchers are opting towards a plant-based alternative serum. JUST is harnessing a plant library using AI. There are over 300,000 species of plants that we know little about. What they’re doing at JUST is studying the plants and sorting them based on their different properties(gelation, creaminess, bitterness, heat tolerance, etc). This is the first step to creating an alternative to the serum.
300,000+ species of plants all around the world that have never been explored for how they can make our cookies or pasta or ice cream or butter or scrambled eggs better. (JUST’s Mission Statement)
To find out more about JUST and their mission visit their website here.
They’re envisioning a way to explore the tools available: plants. If we can truly understand the options out there, we can find a substitute to culture cells in effectively and cheaply.
Finding an affordable, plant-based alternative for the fetal bovine serum will solve numerous issues like affordability and scalability.
How changing the serum will solve the affordability of clean meat
- Lowering the production costs (avoiding the expensive serum will save money) will make the product more affordable
- They can price the products as cheaper, and possibly make them more affordable than traditional meat products
- The serum they use today is not reasonable cost-wise. It cost $300,000 to make 1 burger. Doubt that pricepoint will disrupt an industry that will be worth 7.3 trillion 2025.
How changing the serum will solve the scalability of clean meat
- If we spend less money on the serum, start-ups can centre their knowledge and research around designing bio-reacter tanks and other forms of production material.
- They can’t scale an overpriced product. By changing the serum (to make it affordable) we can eventually make clean meat at a multiplied scale. Eventually feeding everyone.
We need to improve labels on products and make them transparent so customers feel safe eating clean meat
One of the greatest concerns for cultured meat is that customers will be hesitant to buy it.
Today, we put very little thought into the food we buy. The last time you ate a big mac did you stop to think about the 5 years worth of drinking water you’re consuming? Or how the energy it took to create the singular beef patty in your burger was equivalent to driving your car for 25 km? Probably not.
We don’t really consider the environmental aspect of the meat we’re eating. Why?
I’ll tell you why: when you go to the store to buy a chicken, the only thing the package tells us is the nutrition label. While this is useful, why don’t they also display the environmental impact of the chicken too? Maybe if you knew to eat your chicken was equivalent to charge your computer 60 times, you’ll want veggie burgers for dinner instead.
Labelling the environmental impact of the food we eat is the first step to persuading people to choose alternatives, like cultured meat (eventually).
Using the blockchain supply chain to improve transparency of cultured meat and where they’re manufactured
The biggest concern people have is trusting lab-grown meat. Some people feel unsafe imagining their burger was grown in a lab and not in an animal as it is done “naturally”. They have more trust in a cow doing a good job of making a juicy patty than a human.
To win back the consumer’s trust, we could introduce the supply chain using blockchain technology. That way, customers are able to track exactly where their meat was grown, and everything that was added to it. Involving transparency in the marketplace.
How does the blockchain + supply chain work?
In essence, blockchain is a decentralized network where data is stored. No one party is able to control all the data, therefore it can’t be faked. It is controlled by thousands of parties that all have some piece of the database. Meaning no one can alter the composition of the data that’s stored.
You’re probably confused on what the blockchain is, let's use a more real-life example:
If you’re writing, say, an important document with a team of people.
Using Microsoft Word to type out an important collaborative document would require lots of back and forth. One person works on it, then the other person has to wait for the first person to send it to them with the changes. Everyone has to wait to receive the doc in order to edit and make changes. Comments, notes, images or other changes are only visible to the person who is editing the doc at the time. Changes to the doc are controlled by one party.
But if the team used google docs, the situation would be very different. It is more open-sourced. Anyone can edit, add comments or pictures to the document at any time, and everyone (the team) is notified of these changes. What’s seen and entered cannot be denied by anyone, and one person can’t make a change without everyone seeing the change. The changes are controlled by more than one party.
The google doc example is essentially blockchain technology. Applying blockchain to the supply chain will improve the transparency of cultured meat products. The supply chain is all the steps and processes of creating a product and delivering it to the customer. By putting the supply chain on the blockchain, everyone can monitor the activities, people, organizations and resources being put to develop a product.
And since no one can alter the blockchain, the information would be transparent and trustworthy.
People would be able to follow the venture of their chicken nugget from the chicken biopsy to their plate. They could know exactly what steps, processes and resources were put into developing their chicken nugget. People would know where their food came from and perhaps, they’ll except that cultured meat is safe and good to eat — eliminating consumer hesitation.
Lab growing meat and tissue engineering have exponentially increased, but we’re nowhere close to reaching the endless possibilities.
We’re not even close to lab-grown steak. The cell layers would be too thick to survive. Eventually, after layering lots of muscle, the muscle in the middle will die because it’s not getting enough oxygen. This is because in-vitro meat has no blood vessels.
Clearly, the first step is to make synthetic blood vessels.
We’re a long ways away of disrupting the ENTIRE meat market. But it’s something that will eventually happen with the progression of tissue engineering and cellular agriculture research.
In order to better prepare ourselves for the new future of meat (and maximize impact) we need to meet these 3 objectives:
- Lower the price point of products
- Improve Scalability
- Increase Consumer response + acceptability
We need to start by changing the serum and opting for a plant-based alternative.
Researchers should work on enhancing bioreactors and scaffolds used to create cultured meat products in order to make cultured meat more scalable.
Lastly, we must introduce transparency into the supply chain so consumers can truly trust the food they’re eating. We can also involve environmental impact labels to convince people to choose cultured meat over traditional meat.
Beware, everyone, the food of the future is not a long ways away: once we overcome these challenges, you’ll probably be eating clean meat for dinner.
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