A scientific breakthrough means we could all be tucking into affordable, lab-grown meat within the next few years.
American researchers have found a way to create beef muscle cells that produce their own growth factors – a step that can significantly cut the cost of production.
Until now, expensive growth factors had to be added to cultivated meat, accounting for the majority of production costs. But now scientists have modified stem cells to produce their own skeletal muscle cells found in steaks and hamburgers – reducing the cost of production by as much as 90 percent.
The researchers, from Tufts University in Massachusetts, also believe the same method could be applied to grow fish, chicken or pork meat, all of which could soon be on our dinner tables. Cellular agriculture, focusing on the production of meat from cells grown in bioreactors rather than from farmed animals, has moved ever closer to becoming a reality in recent years.
However, a potential restriction of the cultivated meat industry lies in its currently expensive production methods. By far the most expensive cost comes from the addition of growth factors to the growing meats – which accounts for around 90 per cent of production costs.
These growth factors bind to receptors on the cell surface and provide a signal for cells to grow and differentiate into mature cells of different types. They are currently added to the surrounding liquid or media of the growing meat and are made from recombinant protein and sold by industrial suppliers.
Since the growth factors don’t last long in the cell culture media, they also have to be replenished every few days – limiting the ability to provide an affordable product. But in this latest study, published in the journal Cell Reports Sustainability, researchers found a way to modify stem cells to produce their own fibroblast growth factor (FGF) which triggers the growth of skeletal muscle cells you find in a steak or hamburger.
“FGF is not exactly a nutrient. It’s more like an instruction for the cells to behave in a certain way. What we did was engineer bovine (beef) muscle stem cells to produce these growth factors and turn on the signaling pathways themselves,” said Dr. Andrew Stout, Director of Science at Tufts Cellular Agriculture Commercialisation Lab and a lead researcher on the study.
Dr. Stout leads several research projects to take innovations at Tufts University and develop them to the point at which they can be applied at an industrial scale in a commercial setting.
“While we significantly cut the cost of media, there is still some optimization that needs to be done to make it industry-ready. We did see slower growth with the engineered cells, but I think we can overcome that,” said Dr. Stout.
Dr. Stout said strategies to speed up this process could include changing the level and timing of expression of FGF in the cell or altering other cell growth pathways.
“In this strategy, we’re not adding foreign genes to the cell, just editing and expressing genes that are already there to see if they can improve the growth of the muscle cells for meat production,” he added.
This approach could also lead to simpler regulatory approval of the ultimate food product, as regulation is more stringent on additions of foreign genes as opposed to editing native genes.
Some lab-grown meat companies are also vying to produce exotic meats such as lion, tiger and giraffe, and even extinct animals such as mammoth from the creature’s DNA.
“All muscle cells and many other cell types typically rely on FGF to grow,” said Dr. Stout.
David Kaplan, a Stern Family Professor of Engineering at Tufts and another lead author of the study, added his team’s development could see lab-grown meat becoming widely available within the next few years.
“Work is continuing at Tufts University Center for Cellular Agriculture and elsewhere to improve cultivated meat technology – including exploring ways to reduce the cost of nutrients in the growth media, and improving the texture, taste, and nutritional content of the meat,” said Prof Kaplan.
“Products have already been awarded regulatory approval for consumption in the US and globally, although costs and availability remain limiting. I think advances like this will bring us much closer to seeing affordable cultivated meat in our local supermarkets within the next few years,” he added.
Produced in association with SWNS Talker
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