Meat aside: other applications for cellular agriculture

Resource / Meat aside: other applications for cellular agriculture

By Naomi Kreitman / 15 Jun 2017

In the growing field of lab-grown meat, animal cells are harvested from living creatures in a nonintrusive procedure (like a biopsy), and then multiply in carefully developed conditions known as a ‘culture’. Currently, the growth culture is fetal bovine serum, but research is underway to find non-animal alternatives.

The cells merge together in inch-long muscle strands, which are then layered together to make the same kind of meat we eat today. This process takes approximately 2 months, and replicates the natural lifecycle of the cell. Rather than shortening this process, scaling up the technology involves increasing the bulk of meat produced. The fundamental techniques come from the field of regenerative medicine, which aims to restore dysfunctional human organs - think of cell stem research. The idea of growing tissue outside of a body is not novel, but its application to food is.

Similar techniques are being used to create a range of different animal products, in a field of research called cellular agriculture. The end product is molecularly and chemically exactly the same as its livestock counterpart, but the mode of production dramatically different, with a significantly lower environmental impact. Unlike clean meat, products such as milk, eggs, leather and gelatin do not require a biopsy of animal tissue to start the culturing process. Instead of multiplying the whole animal cell, they create the proteins unique to the product itself.

  • Milk: Perfect Day has managed to genetically modify yeast to produce real milk proteins, casein and whey, when it reacts with sugar. Once they’ve got these proteins they add plant-based fats and sugars to create milk that tastes and acts exactly the same as conventionally produced milk. Other dairy products, such as cheese and yoghurt, can be made exactly as they are with conventionally produced milk.
  • Egg whites: Yeast has also been bioengineered by Clara Foods to create the 12 proteins found in egg whites that cause it to act the way it does, by inserting these proteins into the yeast cells. After fermenting with sugars and nutrients, the yeast is separated from the egg white proteins, and there you have it - a molecularly identical and functional egg white.
  • Leather: Bio-technology is being harnessed to make leather without cows, with cells engineered to produce collagen, the protein found in animal hide. Modern Meadow is one pioneer.
  • Gelatin: Similarly, microbes have been engineered to produce the gelatin protein. Geltor ferment for around 2 weeks in a nutritious medium, and finally the protein is purified and the gelatin is ready to use.
  • Rhino horn and elephant ivory: These are being developed in a bid to replace the illegal wildlife trade, the fourth largest black market in the world (after drug, arms, and human trafficking), by biotech start up Pembient.
  • Silkworm and spider silk: This is being produced using biotech microbes to produce strong, stretchy and durable materials that are biodegradable and sustainable. The products could replace water heavy cotton production and problematic plastic nylon fibres.
  • Vanilin: This is the protein that gives vanilla its distinctive flavour. At the moment, the vast majority of vanilin is chemically synthesised (it’s completely artificial), and the small fraction that comes from the natural vanilla plant is harvested from tropical forests. Bioengineering vanilin is a solution that produces the natural protein without chemical synthesis or rainforest farming.

What might the implications of this be? What related resources have you seen?

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