Cellular agriculture focuses on the production of agriculture products from cell cultures using a combination of biotechnology, tissue engineering, molecular biology, and synthetic biology to create and design new methods of producing proteins, fats, and tissues that would otherwise come from traditional agriculture. Most of the industry is focused on animal products such as meat, milk, and eggs, produced in cell culture rather than raising and slaughtering farmed livestock. The most well known cellular agriculture concept is cultured meat.
On March 24, 1990, the FDA approved a bacteria that had been genetically engineered to produce rennet, making it the first genetically engineered product for food. Rennet is a mixture of enzymes that turns milk into curds and whey in cheese making. Traditionally, rennet is extracted from the inner lining of the fourth stomach of calves. Today, cheese making processes use rennet enzymes from genetically engineered bacteria, fungi, or yeasts because they are unadulterated, more consistent, and less expensive than animal-derived rennet.
In 2004, Jason Matheny founded New Harvest, whose mission is to "accelerate breakthroughs in cellular agriculture." New Harvest is the only organization focused exclusively on advancing the field of cellular agriculture and provided the first PhD funding specifically for cellular agriculture, at Tufts University.
By 2014, IndieBio, a synthetic biology accelerator in San Francisco, has incubated several cellular agriculture startups, hosting Muufri (making milk from cell culture, now Perfect Day Foods), Clara Foods (making egg whites from cell culture), Gelzen (making gelatin from bacteria and yeast, now Geltor), Afineur (making cultured coffee beans) and Pembient (making rhino horn). Muufri and Clara Foods were both initially sponsored by New Harvest.
In July 13, 2016, New Harvest hosted the world's first international conference on cellular agriculture in San Francisco, California. The day after the conference, New Harvest hosted the first closed-door workshop for industry, academic, and government stakeholders in cellular agriculture.
Several key research tools are at the foundation of research in cellular agriculture. These include:
A fundamental missing piece in the advancement of cultured meat is the availability of the appropriate cellular materials. While some methods and protocols from human and mouse cell culture may apply to agricultural cellular materials, it has become clear that most do not. This is evidenced by the fact that established protocols for creating human and mouse embryonic stem cells have not succeeded in establishing ungulate embryonic stem cell lines.
The ideal criteria for cell lines for the purpose of cultured meat production include immortality, high proliferative ability, surface independence, serum independence, and tissue-forming ability. The specific cell types most suitable for cellular agriculture are likely to differ from species to species.
Conventional methods for growing animal tissue in culture involves the use of fetal bovine serum (FBS). FBS is a blood product extracted from fetal calves. This product supplies cells with nutrients and stimulating growth factors, but is unsustainable and resource-heavy to produce, with large batch-to-batch variation. Cultured meat companies have been putting significant resources into alternative growth media.
After the creation of the cell lines, efforts to remove serum from the growth media are key to the advancement of cellular agriculture as fetal bovine serum has been the target of most criticisms of cellular agriculture and cultured meat production. It is likely that two different media formulations will be required for each cell type: a proliferation media, for growth, and a differentiation media, for maturation.
As biotechnological processes are scaled, experiments start to become increasingly expensive, as bioreactors of increasing volume will have to be created. Each increase in size will require a re-optimization of various parameters such as unit operations, fluid dynamics, mass transfer, and reaction kinetics.
For cells to form tissue, it is helpful for a material scaffold to be added to provide structure. Scaffolds are crucial for cells to form tissues larger than 100 µm across. An ideal scaffold must be non-toxic for the cells, edible, and allow for the flow of nutrients and oxygen. It must also be cheap and easy to produce on a large scale without the need for animals.
3D tissue systems
The final phase for creating cultured meat involves bringing together all the previous pieces of research to create large (>100 µm in diameter) pieces of tissue that can be made of mass-produced cells without the need for serum, where the scaffold is suitable for cells and humans.
While the majority of discussion has been around food applications, particular cultured meat, cellular agriculture can be used to create any kind of agricultural product, including those that never involved animals to begin with, like Ginkgo Biowork's fragrances.
- Impossible Foods
- The Impossible Burger produced by Impossible Foods contains heme, which the company claims gives the burger its bloody look and taste. Their soy leghemoglobin is produced by taking the soybean gene that encodes the heme protein and transferring it to yeast.
- SuperMeat is an Israeli startup that launched an Indiegogo campaign in 2016 to create cultured chicken meat.
- Memphis Meats
- Memphis Meats is a United States startup that made a prototype of a cultured meatball in 2016.
- Mosa Meat
- Mosa Meat is a Dutch startup that is an outgrowth of Mark Post's cultured burger, which was tasted in London in 2013.
- Shojinmeat Project
- Shojinmeat Project is a Japanese biohacker community developing cultured meat.
- Balletic Foods
- Balletic Foods is working on cultured meat, based in Silicon Valley, California.
- Aleph Farms
- Aleph Farms is working on cultured meat, based in Israel.
- Perfect Day Foods
- Perfect Day is a San Francisco-based startup that started as the New Harvest Dairy Project and was incubated by IndieBio in 2014. Perfect Day is making dairy from yeast instead of cows. The company changed its name from Muufri to Perfect Day in August 2016.
- New Culture
- New Culture a San Francisco-based startup and was incubated by IndieBio in 2019. New Culture is making mozzarella cheese using casein protein (dairy protein) made by microbes instead of cows.
- Real Vegan Cheese
- Real Vegan Cheese based in the San Francisco Bay-area. Is a grass-roots, non-profit Open Science collective working out of two open community labs and was spun out of the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition in 2014. Real Vegan Cheese are making cheese using casein protein (dairy protein) made by microbes instead of cows.
- Clara Foods
- Clara Foods is a San Francisco-based startup that started as the New Harvest Egg Project and was incubated by IndieBio in 2015. Clara Foods is making egg whites from yeast instead of eggs.
Horseshoe Crab Blood
- Sothic Bioscience
- Sothic Bioscience is a Cork-based startup incubated by IndieBio in 2015. Sothic Bioscience is building a platform for biosynthetic horseshoe crab blood production. Horseshoe crab blood contains limulus amebocyte lysate (LAL), which is the gold standard in validating medical equipment and medication.
- Bolt Threads
- Bolt Thread is a California-based company creating engineered silk fibers based on proteins found in spider silk that can be produced at commercial scale. Bolt examines the DNA of spiders and then replicates those genetic sequences in other ingredients to create a similar silk fiber. Bolt’s silk is made primarily of sugar, water, salts, and yeast. Through a process called wet spinning, this liquid is spun into fiber, similar to the way fibers like acrylic and rayon are made.
- Modern Meadow
- Modern Meadow is a Brooklyn-based startup growing collagen, a protein found in animal skin, to make biofabricated leather.
Media and Publications
- Clean Meat: How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner and the World is a book about cellular agriculture written by animal activist Paul Shapiro (author). The book reviews startup companies that are currently working towards mass-producing cellular agriculture products.
- Cultured Meat and Future Food is a podcast about clean meat and future food technologies hosted by Alex Shirazi, a mobile User Experience Designer based in Menlo Park, California, whose current projects focus on retail technology. The podcast features interviews with industry professionals from startups, investors, and non-profits working on cellular agriculture.
New Harvest Cultured Tissue Fellowship at Tufts University
A joint program between New Harvest and the Tissue Engineering Research Center (TERC), an NIH-supported initiative established in 2004 to advance tissue engineering. The fellowship program offers funding for Masters and PhD students at Tufts university who are interested in bioengineering tunable structures, mechanics, and biology into 3D tissue systems related to their utility as foods.
New Harvest brings together pioneers in the cellular agriculture and new, interested parties from industry and academia to share relevant learnings for cellular agriculture's path moving forward.
The GFI conference is an event focused on accelerating the commercialization of plant-based and clean meat.
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