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Are you interested in the science behind cell-based meat?

Source: https://www.gfi.org/images/uploads/2017/06/Mapping-Emerging-Industries.pdf
Source: https://www.gfi.org/images/uploads/2017/06/Mapping-Emerging-Industries.pdf

While the average person may not have heard of cell-based or clean meat, everyone in the meat industry and most people in the biotech or food innovation spaces, will have by now. The buzz around this new technology has gone from bemusement or even scorn just a few years ago, to curious anticipation – or maybe even trepidation for some potential competitors.  There is however, no doubt it is coming. Of course, the commonly asked question is, “When?”.  At the time of writing, the answer given is usually 2-3 or maybe 5 years before we see something available for consumers.

There are still regulatory, labelling, supply & distribution and impact issues to resolve but the main hurdle for getting these new products to market is the science.  Nailing down the best technical pathway is extremely challenging, and it is being tackled independently by multiple players – all apparently doing it differently. This was highlighted in an article reporting on the recent Industrializing Cell-Based Meat Conference in San Francisco, where Eric Shulze of Memphis Meats, said there were now almost 40 start-ups working on this (up from 1 in early 2015) and Liz Specht of the Good Food Institute (GFI) said there was “relatively little consensus” about the best approach.

There are, it seems, many ways to make cell-based meat. For people genuinely interested in the science involved, getting a handle on what these start-ups are actually doing is not possible, due to intellectual property rights. However, there are a number of publicly available resources which are able to cater to different levels of scientific understanding, alleviating the curiosity of everyone from a lay person to someone actively working in the life sciences.

Two non-profit think-tanks, New Harvest and GFI have a range of resources from simple graphic diagrams and animations, to summaries of and links to real research papers.  Anybody curious who’s new to this field should definitely take the time to explore these two sites.  The start-up websites themselves are also a great place to get the general idea.  Mosa Meat in particular has a useful animation which actually describes the process Dr Mark Post used to make the world’s first cell-based hamburgers in 2013.

While this is basically a proof of concept, showing how a muscle cell taken from living tissue can be prompted to replicate and form muscle meat in a lab, it is a long way from the science needed to produce saleable meat at scale.  To do that, GFI identifies 4 main areas that researchers need to concentrate on. [1]

  • Cell lines – Coming up with the best cell lines for each species – those that proliferate and differentiate most stably and efficiently in a large scale production environment.

  • Cell culture media – Producing cost effective, animal-free media which contains the optimum mixture of basal nutrients like salts, lipids, sugars and amino acids but also the magic growth factors that tell cells how to behave and when.

  • Scaffolding platforms for 3D tissue structure – Designing an edible or biodegradable matrix to support the tissue’s growth into meat like structures by providing a substrate and a means for media to flow through and reach cells.

  • Bioreactor and bioprocess design – Designing industrial scale, energy and resource efficient bioprocessing systems that allow for the optimal proliferation of cells and perfusion of media while the cells are maturing.

Copyright: The Good Food Institute.

Source: https://www.gfi.org/images/uploads/2017/06/Mapping-Emerging-Industries.pdf

Following is a collection of resources that cover these areas. While not strictly in order of increasing scientific depth, this list starts with a great summary of the science written in very accessible language and ends with patent reviews that deal with actual processes designed by some of the start-up company researchers  Several sources in between are also very comprehensive.

A Massive Science Report called You Are What You Meat has 9 articles around cell-based meat.  It was put together with the help of New Harvest. The first three articles discuss the reasons for cell-based meat, the next three look at what meat itself is and the final three describe how cell-based meat is made. The article How do we make cultured meat?hones in on the science most specifically.

A 2017 report on emerging research areas by GFI scientists – This report presents a mind map of the areas needing development as at mid 2017.  The four scientific areas and one based on supply and distribution are covered.

A 2018 peer reviewed paper by GFI scientists – This paper looks at the (publicly known) state of the cell-based meat field, as at the end of 2017. Section 2 takes a more detailed look at possible approaches to the above 4 challenges.

Part IV of a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) offered by GFI – Going into greater depth again, this entails a half hour lecture covering some of the processes involved in cell-based meat, as well as prescribed reading and an assignment to complete.

Elliot Swartz’s 2017 blog post – This is an in-depth analysis of everything about cell-based meat including the ‘why’, the ‘how’ and all the possible impacts, implications and challenges. The ‘how’, or the science behind it, is explained in great detail and assumes reasonable scientific knowledge.

Elliot Swartz and GFI’s 2019 Reddit/Futurology series on cell-based meat science – Elliot now works for GFI as an Academic Research Advisor and with them, is presenting a monthly series covering 6 sub-topics, with the first one ‘Cell Lines’, just released.  This series is aimed at people with scientific backgrounds eager to know more about the science and technology behind cell-based meat.  Elliot has also re-published this information on his personal blog, with figures and tables more readily viewable.

Robert Yaman’s Blog on the Patent Landscape – This is a review of publicly available patent applications. As Robert explains, these do not necessarily reflect what is happening right now as the patent process is slow – what is released to the public could have been filed up to 18 months earlier.  The patents Robert reviews cover bioreactor design, bioprinting of muscle tissue, media recycling, alternatives to growth factors, immortalizing cell lines, co-culturing cell types and more.  It really highlights how different organisations are taking vastly different approaches.  There are links to the patents for those with more scientific understanding.  Because there are so many more companies involved now than 18 months ago, expect more patents to be released in the coming months/years.  *Note: Robert's review is a personal analysis only and not to be used in lieu of advice from a patent lawyer*

An additional, but not yet available, resource will be the future findings of some GFI funded cell-based meat research projects.  The organisation has just awarded grants for six, two-year long projects which will look at different aspects of cell-based meat science.  GFI aims to provide the public with regular updates, however the crux of the science will not be available until the papers are officially published.

To further support the sharing of cell-based (and plant-based) meat technology, GFI has started a new Twitter feed @GoodFoodScience. This is where they will announce the release of each Reddit series instalment and presumably talk about the grant research updates. Definitely a good idea to follow GFI on all platforms if the science is what you’re interested in.

The resources listed here present just a glimpse into the exciting science currently evolving around cell-based meat. Most people interested in this field probably know by now, that Winston Churchill in 1931, predicted real meat grown without animals would be here within 50 years. He obviously overestimated the timing of such innovation, but even he would be astounded by the sheer breadth and depth of ingenuity going on today.

Many thanks to Robert Yaman, Elliot Swartz and David Welch for help with this article 🙂

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Written by Lisa Musgrove

Bachelor of Science student majoring in Biotechnology & Microbiology.

Passionate about a future where we do food differently - for the sake of our beautiful planet and the beings we share it with. Technology and human ingenuity have never been greater, yet we are exploiting more of the resources and beings on this planet than ever before.

Cruel and polluting factory farms, vast cattle ranges where there was once rainforest and giant pesticide-soaked monocrops need to be things of the past.

We have the ability to turn things around and I aim to be a part of that. I want a vibrant, healthy and sustainable food system which relies on human smarts, not animals and habitat destruction.

To that end, I follow innovations in cell-based meat, plant-based meat and novel plant proteins, vertical cropping, algae farming, synthetic biology, machine learning & how space-travel challenges actually help solve Earth-bound problems.

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