While plant-based meats have exploded in the retail marketplace and foodservice arenas and captured the headlines, its alternative meat cousin (i.e., cell-based or cultured meat) has been making steady scientific and technical progress and is poised to become a commercial reality in the near future.
Recently, an international collaboration between 3D Bioprinting Solutions in Russia, Israeli-based Aleph Farms, and U.S.-based Meal Source Technology and Finless Foods has successfully produced cell-based meat aboard the International Space Station—248 miles away from any natural resources. Aleph Farms, which creates “steaks” from animal cells, was able to assemble a small-scale bit of muscle tissue in a 3-D bioprinter, developed by 3D Bioprinting Solutions, under micro-gravity conditions, proving its concept that meat can be created in a lab in even the most extreme of environments.
“In space, we don’t have 10,000 or 15,000 L [approximately 3,963 gal] of water available to produce one kg [2.2 lb] of beef,” said Didier Toubia, co-founder and CEO of Aleph Farms. “This joint experiment marks a significant first step toward achieving our vision to ensure food security for generations to come, while preserving our natural resources. This keystone of human achievement in space follows Yuri Gagarin’s success of becoming the first man to journey into outer space, and Neil Armstrong’s 50th anniversary this year, celebrating the moment when the first man walked on [the moon].”
While the proof of concept in space was successful, it will likely take at least three years before consumers on Earth will be able to buy Aleph Farms’ cell-based meat. “The mission of providing access to high-quality nutrition anytime, anywhere in a sustainable way is an increasing challenge for all humans,” said Jonathan Berger, CEO of The Kitchen accelerator that co-founded Aleph.
Researchers at Tufts University believe a better method for producing high-volume, nutritious food may lie in lab-grown insect meat. “Compared to cultured mammalian, avian, and other vertebrate cells, insect cell cultures require fewer resources and less energy-intensive environmental control, as they have lower glucose requirements and can thrive in a wider range of temperature, pH, oxygen, and osmolarity conditions,” reported Natalie Rubio, a doctoral student at Tufts. “Alterations necessary for large-scale production are also simpler to achieve with insect cells, which are currently used for bio-manufacture of insecticides, drugs, and vaccines.”
Research has already led to inexpensive, animal-free growth media for insect cells—including soy- and yeast-based formulas—as well as a successful ‘suspension culture.’ “In most mammalian muscle cell culture systems, the cells have to be fixed in a single layer to a growth surface, which is complex to scale up for mass food production. Many insect cells, however, can be grown free-floating in a suspension of growth media to allow cost-effective, high-density cell generation,” explained Rubio.
Technology developed to stimulate movement of insect tissue for bio-robotics could also be applied to food production, since regular contraction may be required for cultured insect muscle to develop a ‘meaty’ texture. A particularly efficient method is optogenetic engineering, whereby cells are made to contract in response to light by introducing a new gene—another advantage of insect cells, which more readily accept genetic modifications than do other animal cells.
Although cultured insect meat is not yet ready for consumption, research is ongoing to master two key processes: controlling development of insect cells into muscle and fat and combining them in 3-D cultures with a meat-like texture. “For the latter,” said Rubio, “sponges made from chitosan—a mushroom-derived fiber that is also present in the invertebrate exoskeleton—are a promising option.” Eventually, according to Rubio, advances in insect cell culture and tissue engineering could potentially be translated to lobster, crab, and shrimp as well, due to the evolutionary proximity of insects and crustaceans.