Cultivated Meat & Seafood – Technology

In this series, we're looking at cultivated meat and seafood. In this post, we take a look at the emerging technology enabling cultivated meat and seafood production.

What is cultivated meat and seafood technology?

Scientists use an emerging branch of biotechnology called cellular agriculture to cultivate meat and seafood (1).
Cellular agriculture replicates the biological cell growth process to create meat and seafood. 

Let's break this concept down. 

Currently, animals are born, they grow, they are slaughtered, and processed for food. While we don't typicallySubscribe for weekly updates_ go.msu.edu_cris-connect think of meat and seafood as "cells" per se, they are cells. All meat and seafood are made up of cells that contain proteins, fats, and other nutrients. 
Cellular agriculture replicates the cell-growth process outside of the animal.  

How will cellular agriculture work? 

  1. Scientists obtain cells from the animals they want to make cultivated meat and seafood from
  2. Scientists put the cells in a bioreactor that may contain scaffolding to provide a matrix for cells to attach to and grow
  3. The cells "feed" off growth media, which includes the nutrients and growth factors needed to promote cell growth
  4. The cultivated meat and seafood are harvested from the bioreactor and ready for processing, distribution, and sale

Where do scientists get the cells?

Currently, researchers and industries are developing cell banks that will contain cells that are optimal for cultivation. 
These cells can be embryonic cells from animal embryos (e.g., chicken eggs for chicken) or satellite cells which are skeletal muscle adult stem cells taken from adult animals (e.g., cells collected from a cow biopsy for beef) (1,2). 
The cell banks will make sure the selected cells are optimal for cultivation. They will consider characteristics like how quickly the cells grow, how they respond to growth media, and the end product's overall taste and consistency (1,2).

What is a bioreactor? What is scaffolding? 

Bioreactors provide a temperature-controlled, clean, closed environment for cells to grow. Currently, bioreactors are often used to make beer, vitamins, and more (1). 
Researchers are currently trying to design a bioreactor that will fit the needs of meat and seafood cultivation (1). 
Future bioreactors designed for cultivated meat and seafood may also contain scaffolding. The cells need to grow on a matrix to have a specific shape and texture. So, scaffolding will be necessary to give the cells the required physical structure. 
Scaffolding can be made from many different materials and processes, including microcarriers (e.g., microscopic beads), decellularized plants and fungi (e.g., spinach leaves, mushrooms), or 3D bioprinting (e.g., cells formed layer by layer via computer-aided design) (1). 
While there are three options currently under exploration, researchers are still trying to identify scaffolding that can be scaled to mass production (1). 

What is growth media?

Growth media is the "food" the cells will use to live and grow. 
Just like living animals, the cultivated cells need nutrients to exist and grow. Not just any nutrients, the cells will need a specific combination of carbohydrates (sugar), amino acids, proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals, and growth factors (1,2).

What are growth factors? 

While many of the ingredients in growth media are familiar, growth factors may stand out to us. 
All living beings produce growth factors, often in the form of secreted proteins or hormones. These growth factors are small molecules naturally produced in animals (including humans) that signal and guide cell growth. 
Each cell type needs specific growth factor signals to trigger successful growth and maturation.
While there are advancements in producing growth factors, scientists are still researching muscle-specific signaling pathways and the optimal dosage to cultivate meat and seafood effectively and safely (1,2).

What are the current limitations?

Cellular agriculture is still in its infancy, and there is much to learn and develop in all aspects of this field.
Scientists are still working on figuring out the best cells for cultivation. They are working on developing scaffolding and bioreactors that will work effectively for mass production. They are working on developing growth media that contains the correct balance of nutrients and growth factors. 
In addition, some of these growth factors are currently very expensive, which presently represents a significant challenge to the production of affordable cultivated meats and seafood.

While these limitations are real, researchers continue to develop new tools and systems in the pursuit of making cultivated meat and seafood a viable option. 

The good news.

While there are still many research opportunities, the technology continues to advance, so much so that regulations and safety protocols are under development. 
In our next post, we'll look at the cultivated meat and seafood safety and regulations


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