This article was updated in May 2019
From the first lab-grown dish in 2013, cellular agriculture has clearly progressed. Since then, more companies and investors have entered the field to further develop it. As the field continues to progress to one-day become the future of food, cellular agriculture has attracted a lot more media attention which includes funding of companies in the millions of dollars. On the flip side the US Cattle Association has filed a petition as they are starting to feel threatened.
Yet, for someone who isn’t familiar with the field, some of the terms and concepts in cellular agriculture can be unusual and confusing. This article will highlight the top 6 terms associated with cellular agriculture and what they really mean in context to the field!
Cellular agriculture (commonly shortened as cell ag) is the field of growing animal products directly from cell cultures instead of using livestock, eliminating the need to use animals. Research has revolved around growing animal meats (such as beef, poultry, and fish) as well as animal products (like milk, leather, and egg whites) in cell cultures. Instead of raising a cow from birth for milk, meat, and leather, cell ag presents an alternative way to get the same animal products without all of the problems associated with conventional livestock agriculture.
Cellular agriculture can be broken down into two categories, based on how the cell cultures are used: cellular agriculture (where the actual cells are harvested, like for meats) and acellular agriculture (where a product that the cell cultures make and not the actual cells are harvested).
Acellular agriculture refers to a category of cellular agriculture that involves growing and harvesting a product that the cell cultures make, not the actual cells themselves. This process is used in making milk, egg whites, and many other products via cell ag. Just like egg white, milk consists of a variety of different proteins and fats, and these compounds can be grown without using animals, but, instead, by using microbes like yeast. These proteins can then be harvested to make products like Perfect Day Food’s animal-free dairy milk and Clara Foods’ animal-free egg white. All without the animal.
The first cell ag leather-bound book. Made from jellyfish.
The startup Geltor showed the potential of what can be done with acellular agriculture. Geltor uses cell ag to grow the protein collagen to make animal-free gelatin and other texture products. As a proof of concept, Geltor used cell ag to make gummy bears. Unlike normal gummy bears, Geltor made theirs using mastodon gelatin. In January 2018, Geltor went even further to make the first cell ag leather-bound book, using jellyfish collagen. The various collagens used highlight the versatility of what can be made using cellular agriculture.
Cell cultures refer to growing cells in a controlled environment (like in a petri dish in a laboratory) outside of where the cells would normally be found. In order to survive and replicate, these cells are placed in a cell culture serum that contains all the nutrients that will help the cells survive and grow.
Cell cultures in petri dishes
In cellular agriculture, cell cultures are used to grow and produce the animal products. One of the key obstacles ahead in cell ag is scaling production of cell cultures to get from lab to market. Presently, cell ag researchers are looking for the best cell lines to use in cell cultures as well as an alternative to animal-derived cell culture serums.
A cell line refers to all the cells that emerged from the division of an original cell in a cell culture. For example, as cells grow and divide from an initial cell in a cell culture, that initial cell would be the source of the cell line. In cellular agriculture, researchers are looking for a stable stem cell line that could (ideally) divide indefinitely into more cells in cell cultures. These cell lines would then become the stable source of all other stem cells and differentiated cells that produce cell-cultured meat.
Cell lines are grown in cell cultures with serum
Stem cells are unique cells because they have the ability to produce more copies of itself (the stem cell) via self-replication or to produce cells that become different cell types via differentiation. At the moment, to produce cultured meat, researchers use cells found in muscle tissue called satellite cells. When activated, satellite cells will either self-replicate to produce more satellite cells or differentiate into muscle fibre cells that become the meat product. The problem with these cells, however, is that satellite cells have a limited number of self-replications in their lifespans.
Once a stable cell line (that can divide indefinitely) is found and becomes widely available for animals of interest, the sourcing of stem cell lines to make cell-cultured meat will no longer be an obstacle.
The cell culture media is the nutritious mixture that cells grow in, including the cell culture serum. The cell culture media provides all of the nutrients and growth factors that cells may need to replicate or differentiate into another cell type. There are two main obstacles in scaling serum: its sourcing and price. In many scientific labs, a common cell culture serum used to grow cells is fetal bovine serum. Not only would this still involve animal sourcing in the production process, fetal bovine serum is very costly.
Researchers are working to develop an inexpensive animal-free cell culture serum
Animal-free serums have been developed for medical purposes, but the problem of costliness remains for scaling production. The development of an inexpensive and animal-free growth serum for cell lines has once been described as the Holy Grail for cellular agriculture companies, as it is one of the main obstacles to scale production. Further innovation and research are required to find a cost-effective solution that would make scaling production feasible and affordable.
Cultured meat refers to the meat grown in vitro from cell cultures via cellular agriculture. Cultured meat is also referred to as cell-based meat, cultivated meat, clean meat, lab-grown meat, or in vitro meat. To grow cell ag meat, muscle cells are taken from the animal of interest and are grown in a cell culture media to become meat. The cell culture media and how the cells are grown are important in this process, because they help the cells develop into the same meat found in meat that comes directly from animals.
Cultured meatball by Memphis Meats
The first taste test for cultured meat occurred in 2013 when Dr. Mark Post and his team created the first lab-grown beef burgers. The cost of the first burger was more than $300,000 each! Since then, the cost of producing a burger has significantly dropped significantly. In 2016, Memphis Meats became the first cell ag company to make the cultured meatball. In March 2017, Memphis Meats also became the first company to produce cultured poultry meat (chicken and duck). Later in 2017, Finless Foods became the first company to produce cultured fish meat.
In September 2018, New Age Meats introduced the world of the first cell-based pork sausage. And in December 2018, Israeli startup Aleph Farms surprised many to produce the world's first cell-grown beef steak.
With these 6 terms, you now know and understand the basics of cellular agriculture. From cultured meat to various acellular agriculture products, there is a lot of versatility behind what can be made from cell cultures. Beyond any regulatory issues and the emerging fight for the word meat, scaling production remains the main hurdle ahead for cell ag to be commercially viable.
If this article was of interest to you, check out the upcoming cell ag products coming soon to a market near you! For more information and details about cellular agriculture, please take a look at the in-depth introduction and overview to the future of food.
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