We’re getting closer to cell-grown burgers

The road to completely slaughter-free meat products has been a long one. There is growing evidence that the production of animal products is a huge scourge on the planet. For carnivores who like to bite into a beef burger or a tasty chicken nugget but can’t stand contributing to the often controversial methods of meat production, there are plenty of alternatives. Substitutes like tofu patties don’t always seem to get rid of the meat-lover’s itch perfectly.

One solution that many scientists and the food industry have investigated is to develop lab-grown meat, which is where real animal cells are taken from an animal and grown independently in a lab environment. So, real chicken cells would be in those nuggets, but no real chicken has to die to get your tasty snack. And these lab-grown foods have already been made – California-based start-up Eat Just’s no-kill chicken meat has been approved for sale in Singapore in 2020, and Hong Kong-based Avant Meats has developed a lab-grown edible fish mouth.

But, the holy grail of lab meat scientists are reaching/aiming for beef. Beef is infamous for its carbon footprint, as well as its difficulty in being recreated as cultured cells. In 2013, a Dutch scientist pioneered the first lab-grown beef burger, but the catch is the animal-saving meal sold for around $330,000. Unlike birds and fish, mammalian cells are found to be significantly more delicate and expensive to manipulate.

“It’s a challenge because, as you know, culturing mammalian cells is very expensive,” says Kasia Gora, synthetic biologist and co-founder of cell-cultured meat company SCiFi Foods. Currently, biopharmaceutical companies are primarily large-scale lab-based mammalian cell developers, Gora says. This cell line research played an important role in the early stages of pharmaceutical development, but the processes are expensive. “It works and it’s fantastic if you can charge $1,000,000 a gram for your product,” Gora says. “But the food has to be cheap.”

[Related: How to enjoy fake meat in a way that actually helps the planet.]

However, Gora and the team behind SCiFi Foods, formerly known as Artemys Foods, have made a breakthrough: cow cells that can reduce the cost of cell-grown beef by 1,000 times. The trick, according to Gora, is a combination of single-cell suspension and CRISPR gene editing.

Generally, when cultured cells grow, they have to latch onto something to start growing. “Most animal cells prefer to grow attached to a solid surface, which mimics the conditions they would find themselves in in an animal body,” says Liz Specht, vice president of science and technology at the Good Food Institute, a non-profit organization focused on alternative proteins. acceleration. “But when growing cells on a large scale, limiting yourself to surface-adherent cells presents a challenge because you need a lot of surface area, think how thin the cells are growing on the surface of a cell culture dish. , to make a lot of meat. ”

To combat this, companies typically use tiny beads that cells attach to, but as cell masses build up, they can become large and bump into or damage other growing cell beads, Specht adds. His team found that a more efficient approach is to grow in single-cell suspension, or where cells grow simply by floating on their own like yeast in a brewery vessel. Without beads or any surface, costs go down and efficiency goes up.

Gora and his team have made impressive progress with a single-cell suspension approach that has resulted in a beef that’s not too far off the mark. By using CRISPR Cas9, scientists can reduce the functions of certain genes or replace them with other wild-type genes to convince them that they are “happy to grow in single-cell suspension,” Gora says. The team can then insert these cells into bioreactors, which are vessels designed for growing organisms under controlled conditions, making scaling up quite simple, she adds.

There is, however, a big difference between SCiFi’s product and the super-expensive Dutch lab burger – these cells are going to be used as an ingredient in mostly plant-based burgers instead of constituting the whole thing. So instead of building the scaffolding of an all-lab-beef burger from scratch, Gora says using the structure of a veggie burger will bring the best of both worlds.

“Basically, the strategy solves the cost problem with cultured meat, and it has the benefit of solving the taste problem with plant-based meat,” she says. The company expects a pilot trial of its burgers to cost around $10 per burger. But it will likely be a few more years before the average grocery store shopper can try one, especially since the FDA has yet to approve a product like this for consumer sale.

As with most developments in meat alternatives, there are legitimate concerns about the future of cell-cultured meat. The counter published an in-depth report on some of the main questions that remain with these types of products, such as the likelihood that these projects can be reliably scaled up, the problem of potentially harmful viruses infecting living cells in a culture, or the feasibility to produce certain cells without taking fetal bovine serum from slaughtered cows. Some scientists say lab-grown meat may have more climate change impacts than traditional methods.

Scientists have also expressed concern that cultured meat does not necessarily change or alter our thinking about the current unsustainable food system in place today. “But if cellular agriculture is to improve the system it displaces, then the critics are right: it must develop in a way that doesn’t externalize the real costs of production onto workers, consumers and the environment. “, write researchers from Duke University and Johns Hopkins University, in an article for the Guardian.

While many components of the research and production process still need to be refined, the era of lab-grown or cell-grown meat is fast approaching.

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