Early innovators must engineer their own products, build the supply chain, and solve the challenge of economic and technological scalability. Despite these difficulties, a few companies are already set to go to market.
Cultivated meat, otherwise known as cultured, lab-grown, or clean meat, is meat that has been grown from stem cells. The tissue engineering techniques used to produce cultivated meat were first used in regenerative medicine after the discovery of cell lines.
In 1998, Jon F. Vein filed a US patent for the production of tissue engineered meat for human consumption. By 2030, cultivated meat could provide as much as 0.5% of the world’s meat supply, with implications for multiple sectors.
It takes approximately 2-8 weeks to cultivate meat, depending on the product you wish to reproduce. The cultivated meat process can be divided into three main stages:
To begin with, stem cells are harvested from animal tissue samples, often via minimally invasive methods. The cells are cultured in vitro using plant-based nutrient medium and growth serum before being grown en masse in bioreactors, also known as cultivators.
Bioreactors provide a clean and temperature-controlled environment. Here the cells are fed with an oxygen-rich cell culture medium containing the nutrients and growth factors required to grow cells outside of an animal’s body. Additional supplements can even improve the nutritional profile compared to animal counterparts by injecting higher levels of vitamins, minerals, and fatty acids than would naturally be present.
Cell differentiation is stimulated by various factors such as scaffolding structures and adaptations to the medium, enabling the transformation into the various tissues that constitute meat. For example, fat, skeletal muscle, and connective tissue. Cell density and volume can also be manipulated to influence the end product.
The differentiated cells are isolated and processed into end products such as chicken nuggets, steak, tuna nigiri, or burgers. They’re then packaged, ready to be marinated, fried, or even grilled on the BBQ.
Cultivated products are predicted to have many benefits over conventional meat. For example:
Since the global population is expected to grow to 9.8 billion by 2050, that means we will have an extra 2 billion mouths to feed in the next few decades. The more efficient production process for cultured meat provides a much better outlook for global food security.
The efficiency of the cultivated meat process means that consumers could one day enjoy cell-based Wagyu beef and lobster for the same price as a burger or mackerel. Residents of isolated communities with no arable land may be able to access meat and seafood feasts just as easily as those living in areas surrounded by grassy pastures or waters endowed with large populations of fish.
Furthermore, cell-cultivated meat unlocks opportunities to eat meat from animals that are not widely consumed or difficult to domesticate, which could provide more diverse protein alternatives that are low-fat, highly nutritious, or even tastier. For example, VOW Food is currently researching cell lines from zebras and kangaroos.
There is plenty of room for innovation within the cultivated meat industry, particularly pertaining to the cell lines used for production. For example, the traits of these cell lines have often been poorly characterized outside of the context of cultured meat and further study could facilitate optimization to increase efficiency and productivity.
The isolation and documentation of cell lines through initiatives such as GFI’s cell line repositories will streamline access for researchers. What’s more, exciting opportunities exist in new cell lines and further research could accelerate the analysis of non-domesticated animal cells, deciphering information in regard to their flavor, texture, and nutrition.
Since there are over 2 million species of animal, machine intelligence will be critical for harnessing the vast amount of data involved in cell line analysis. In addition to scanning the natural world for proteins that have specific characteristics, AI and ML techniques can be used to advance the formulation of plant-based cell media.
Further opportunities also lie in scaling up to achieve the commercialization of cultured meat. Since many of the techniques and equipment used in the processing of cultured meat are similar to those used in biologics and conventional meat processing, maximizing meat production will require cooperation with these industries to leverage equipment and expertise.