No food innovation would ever be possible without researchers.
Especially not cellular agriculture.
Cellular agriculture ("cell ag") is the field of growing animal products, like meat, from cell cultures instead of raising animals for them. Compared to the present livestock agricultural system, cell ag provides an alternative and sustainable way to produce animal products to meet the growing global demand for animal products. Without requiring animals.
During the New Harvest 2018 Conference, I had the opportunity to speak to some of the incredible researchers in the field. Some who have been involved with cellular agriculture from the very beginning. From research on different scaffold mediums to designing bioreactor systems, check out the fascinating research going on in cellular agriculture.
"What if you could have something in the middle, where you have a composite of plant plus mammalian tissue?" Photo taken from LinkedIn
Santiago Campuzano is a New Harvest Fellow working on his Master's degree at the University of Ottawa at the Dr. Andrew Pelling Lab.
1. How did you first hear about the field?
I have a degree in food science from the University of British Columbia, and I started getting concerned with the effects that agriculture had on the environment. I started looking for ways to help alleviate that. At that point, I ran into a TEDtalk by Andras [Forgacs, Founder and CEO of Modern Meadow] where he discussed the idea of 3D printing tissue and leather for the first time.
So that was it! After that, I started looking into ways to incorporate my food science knowledge into this field and how I could use that to get my foot through the door with cell ag. I ran into New Harvest, and that’s how it pretty much all started.
2. Right now, you are doing your MSc. And research at the University of Ottawa. Can you briefly describe what you do?
To make it brief, we’re trying to see what role does decellularized tissue plays in cellular agriculture. Decellularized plant tissue, to be exact. Previously, the Pelling lab has shown that decellularized apple tissue can be a 3D scaffold for mammalian cell growth. The goal is to see if that can be applied to cellular agriculture as well.
We’re trying to look into the physical topography, for example, or the physical characteristics of plants that are already present in the plant tissue that can be used to or can have an effect on how cells interact with the matrix, or how it can affect a cell's phenotype.
3. What’s the next step for your research?
It’s very important to be conclusive with what we’re doing and go one step at a time. First of all, it’s important to see if cells can grow on different decellularized plant tissue. Maybe look at things like mushrooms, for example. From there on, you can start asking other questions, like how that would compare to real meat? You can [then] begin by testing the mechanical properties.
Right now, we have this idea that [conventional meat alternatives] are either plant-based or from animal cells. In the future, and something I’ve been thinking of, what if you could have something in the middle, where you have a composite of plant plus mammalian tissue?
We don’t think about it much because it’s a new food. We’re not used to seeing ‘Mushroom-turkey’, we see mushroom and turkey. So that would be the future of the research. I don’t know if it’ll be my research, necessarily, but at least my research hopes to show that the cells can grow in different substrates.
"I was really excited to see [Mark Post's] work since it meant I wasn't alone in this mission." Photo taken from LinkedIn
Jess Krieger is a New Harvest Fellow working on her PhD in Cell and Molecular Biology at the Dr. Min-Ho Kim Lab at Kent State University in Ohio.
1. How did you first get involved with cellular agriculture? How did you first find out about it?
My journey started eight years ago when I realized how destructive animal agriculture is for the planet. At first I tried to convince my friends and family to stop eating meat, but that didn't work out so well. Trying to convince people to change their eating habits is like asking them to switch religions. So I decided on another strategy. I've always been a futurist, so I thought we could change how we produce animal products by using biotechnology. That was before Mark Post came out with his beef burger, but I was really excited to see his work since it meant I wasn't alone in this mission.
2. Could you please give us a brief summary of what you are researching?
We are working on a pork product and a beef product. We’ve isolated a number of cell types such as skeletal muscle cells, endothelial cells for vasculature, and fat cells for meat marbling. We’re going to combine all of those cell types into a three-dimensional tissue-engineered meat product. We’re working on a bacon product, and we’d also like to do this with beef as well. In order to scale up the size of the meat that we can grow, we have to design bioreactors that we’re working on in collaboration with different groups around the world. We’re hoping to combine our tissue engineered meats with these perfusion bioreactor systems, so we can grow integrated whole muscle organ meat products.
3. What do you see as the next step for you and your research?
Trying the product!
"I think I just typed in the right google combination to make cellular agriculture related things pop up." Photo taken from LinkedIn
Natalie Rubio is a New Harvest Research Fellow completing her second year as the first PhD in Cellular Agriculture at Dr. David Kaplan’s Lab at Tufts University in Boston.
1. What got you interested in cellular agriculture in the first place?
I got involved before it was called cellular agriculture, back in 2013. I was a junior in college at CU Bolder (University of Colorado in Boulder) and I was studying chemical and biological engineering. A lot of students in my program were pursuing work in the pharmaceutical or oil and gas industries, but I wasn’t very interested in those fields.
I had always cared about animal welfare, but I had no idea how to do that in a productive way. I was taking a bioethics class in my junior year, and they had an animal welfare segment that inspired me to try to use engineering to help the cause in some way.
I started looking at the field of tissue engineering in order to create alternatives to animal experimentation (e.g., toxicology models using in vitro human tissues). While I was looking at tissue engineering, I think I just typed in the right google combination to make cellular agriculture related things pop up and I discovered Modern Meadow, which at the time was focused on making meat before they pivoted to leather.
This is where I first learned about the concept of cultured meat. I thought it was so novel, exciting and impactful. I decided I was going to get involved somehow and from there I found New Harvest online and volunteered to do some fundraising and social media work for them.
2. Now you’re doing your PhD at Tufts with Dr. Kaplan. Could you summarize what research you’re doing there?
David Kaplan’s lab is a biomaterials-focused lab for tissue engineering and regenerative medicine. Many people in his lab use silk and think about how we can transform silk into different formats, like sponges, films, hydrogels and fibers, and how we could use those materials for biomedical applications.
My team and I are working on food applications of biotechnology. How we could use biomaterials to produce food? I’m working with a dietary fiber called chitosan, which can be obtained as a byproduct from the seafood industry, so you can find it on crab exoskeletons and crustaceans, but you can also source it from mushrooms. A lot of people have used crustacean chitosan to make different materials for the medical field. I wanted to use something free from animal products, so I’m using mushroom-based chitosan to make similar scaffolds and apply those for the growth of muscle cells.
I take chitosan, which is just a powder, and I make it into different types of films and sponges. Then I grow muscle cells on the scaffolds to try to form a 3D muscle fascicle (so that we could generate a whole cut of meat rather than ground meat) that is using this structure as a basis for guiding growth.
3. What is the next step in this research?
Incorporating different cell types. If we can do muscle really well, we’d like to move on to fat.
I’m also really interested in nutrition. I don’t think there have been many studies on the nutrition of cell cultures. I’m interested in looking at the nutritional value of cell cultures and comparing to the in vivo values. We assume that they can be similar, but we don’t really know! How do we change that by feeding different media compounds? How can the scaffold itself contribute to the nutritional properties?
"I didn’t know [my work] could be applied to cell ag until I learned about New Harvest." Photo taken from LinkedIn
Jamie Courtenay is a final year PhD student with the Centre for Sustainble Chemical Technologies at the University of Bath, UK.
1. How did you first get involved in this field?
My background is in chemistry, so I started off doing an MChem in Chemisry at the University of Bath. After that, I decided to do a PhD in the area of sustainable chemical technologies. The reason why I was interested in that is because I thought it was such a broad topic, covering some really important issues, and one of those issues being food production.
That’s where I was first exposed to cellular agriculture as a method for food production. The work I knew about was mainly tissue engineering, and I didn’t know it could be applied to cell ag until I learned about New Harvest
2. Could you briefly summarize what your research is about?
The research that I do aims to utilize cellulose, which is a natural polymer, to use for biomedical applications and for food production applications through cell ag. Simply, what I do is take cellulose as a biomaterial and apply simple chemical modifications to tune and tailor its properties for certain applications, which is 3D scaffolds for growing meat or micropatterning cellulose surfaces.
3. Where do you hope to with this research? What is the next step?
I’d love to stay involved in the cell ag community. One of the reasons why I’m here is to find out the work being done in this space. Whether that is a post-doc position or working in industry.
"I loved both animals equally and wanted to find a way to keep snakes from starving without having to kill any mice." Photo taken from Good Food Institute
Marie Gibbons is New Harvest Research Fellow and Good Food Institute Research Fellow who recently completed her Masters at North Carolina State University.
1) How did you first learn about cellular agriculture and how did you get involved?
I first thought about growing meat without animals when I was around 12 years old and had a first-hand experience with the circle of life. I found out that my dad was feeding my pet snake frozen mice, and didn't know how to handle it! I loved both animals equally and wanted to find a way to keep snakes from starving without having to kill any mice. That led to the idea of a robot mouse, complete with mouse-meat and a remote-controlled endoskeleton. But at 12 years old, I didn't have too much experience with mammalian cell culture or digestible robotics, so I decided to pursue veterinary medicine instead.
The decision to grow meat for animals other than snakes (humans, in this case), arose right before going to vet school. I was working with a travelling farm animal vet who visited organic, family-owned, animal welfare approved farms all around North Carolina. The animal treatment I witnessed was horrifying. The farm animals we cared for were lucky to be given anaesthetic before undergoing procedures, but most farm animals are castrated, dehorned, and hot-iron branded, all without pain medication- or even a veterinarian to perform the procedures! The breaking point came in January of 2016, when we visited a cattle ranch to treat a mother cow with a bad case of pink eye. She was not worth enough in meat to warrant a trip to the hospital, and it was too risky to anesthetise her in the field. Our only option was to cut out her eye while she was still conscious. It took 2 hours. And because her eye was so infected and inflamed, we had to cut the eye in half in order to fully remove it. Being responsible for that amount of pain and terror, and knowing that it was all for the taste of a hamburger... it was too much for me to handle. After that, I decided to switch career paths and wrote a grant proposal to study large-scale muscle cell production. I've been researching how to make clean meat ever since!
2) Can you briefly summarize your research?
My research focuses on large-scale production of poultry- specifically chicken and turkey muscle. I've explored cell line establishment, co-culturing as a form of serum replacement, plant-based scaffolding, 3D tissue development, suspension-based bioreactor growth, and most recently, genetic editing for low-cost, optimized production.
3) What is the next step for you and your research?
After graduate school, I headed to Memphis Meats to work on bringing clean meat products to market as a research scientist. I'm currently focusing on serum-free media scale-up in order to bring down costs and put 100% cruelty-free meat on the shelves as soon as possible!
It was quite appropriate to meet all the researchers around the New Harvest 2018 Conference. New Harvest is the main nonprofit organization that funds primary research in cellular agriculture. And we’ll need more of that.
For the field to continue to grow, more research and researchers will be needed. From helping scale production to addressing other obstacles in the field, cellular agriculture research is an important step forward.