Cloning food for thought

Cow-free meat and dairy. Chicken-free eggs. Established technologies are making lab-grown food more commonplace, whether we’re ready for it or not.

 Illustration by  Simona Seizova

Illustration by Simona Seizova

Everything can be broken down into simple chemical pieces. Take, for example, the humble breakfast combination of bacon and eggs. Eggs have three different types of molecular ingredients: proteins, fats and water. Likewise, a piece of bacon can be described as layer upon layer of muscle and fat cells stitched together by connective tissue proteins. In fact, every meal we eat has a list of ingredients that we wouldn’t normally think about.

If you know the molecular ingredients for something, then in theory you can make it. This is precisely what several companies around the world are doing by creating common food products in laboratories. It’s a new form of food science that imitates what we produce from nature.

In 2013, the world’s first lab-grown beef burger, produced by Prof Mark Post’s tissue engineering research group in the Netherlands, was presented at a London news conference. A spinoff company, known as Mosa Meat, was formed from this lab and now several other start-up companies are developing their own versions of “clean meat”. In a similar vein, companies such as Clara Foods and Perfect Day are developing synthetic egg whites and milk products, all sans chicken and cow. It may sound far-fetched, but these lab-food products have the potential to build a new aisle in the supermarket.

Making food in the laboratory

Synthetically produced food may be a confronting concept but, surprisingly, it’s not all that unnatural. Lab-grown beef begins with a real-life cow. Rather than that cow being slaughtered, a little bit of muscle tissue is obtained by a small needle biopsy. From this muscle biopsy a type of adult stem cell, known as a satellite cell, is isolated. Stem cells have the capacity to regenerate, and satellite cells are responsible for creating new muscle when the muscle is injured. Given the right nutrients and environment, these satellite cells will divide and multiply as they would in the living organism.

 
 

The whole process could be viewed as animal cells behaving in an almost plant-like way. Instead of a seed, you have satellite cells. Instead of water, you provide sugars, proteins, vitamins, and minerals in liquid form, known as culture media. Instead of sunshine, cells need warmth and humidity provided by incubators. Given the right signals, the cells know what they have to do.

Satellite cells require additional, specific signals to allow them to differentiate into muscle cells. Once the satellite cells have reached a certain mass, they are transferred to a new environment with different media and placed into a gel scaffold that will encourage them to build muscle proteins and self-organise into muscle fibres, known as myotubes. It takes about 10,000 of these individual myotubes, which are about 0.3mm in length, to make a beef burger patty. The whole patty is 100% beef — it just didn’t grow in a cow.

When it comes to producing synthetic egg whites and milk, no animals are involved. Instead of cells, the main ingredients for these food products are a combination of different proteins and water. Amazingly, these proteins don’t need to come from chickens or cows. Scientists can make these proteins using an entirely different organism — yeast.

We’re already quite familiar with using yeast in food products — be it using them to produce carbon dioxide bubbles to make bread rise, or to make alcohol. Yeast can be genetically engineered to produce other molecules too, such as proteins. The technology exploits the basic biological principle that the instructions required to make proteins are encoded within DNA sequences. It is relatively easy to introduce a foreign DNA sequence into yeast cells, which encodes for the protein that you want. The yeast will accept that DNA as if it were their own and will also produce the protein encoded by the DNA. It’s a form of molecular hijacking; it exploits the cellular machinery of the yeast to produce your specific protein.

 
  Yeast has been used in food production for thousands of years.   Max Pixel  (CC0 Public Domain)

Yeast has been used in food production for thousands of years. Max Pixel (CC0 Public Domain)

 

The final product is actually yeast free, as the proteins are isolated by breaking open the yeast cells, and any non-protein bits are excluded by purification processes. With these purified proteins, and you can make an egg white or milk product that is not too dissimilar to the real thing.

Public perception of lab food

In a recent study conducted in Belgium, Portugal, and the United Kingdom, consumer attitudes towards lab-produced meat were met with “[initial] feelings of disgust and considerations of unnaturalness.” This typical emotive response to unfamiliar foods is known as the yuck factor; because it’s not familiar, we have an impulse to find it unpalatable.

The fears of unnaturalness largely stemmed from a general mistrust in the science and concerns about safety, with comments such as: “How ‘alive’ are the cells involved in the production of synthetic meat?” and “How do we know that many years down the line they will not decide that synthetic meat harms you in some way?”

However, there was also some open mindedness in the survey responses about the science and technology moving with the times. Participants pointed out that we have been intervening with nature to produce food for a long time, with statements like: “the fact that a chicken lays an egg every day, it's not like this in nature. Or a cow that keeps giving milk for years”. Other responses recognised the potential benefit to society: “If you don't need animals anymore and that's as good as the real stuff. And you eliminate that high ecological footprint. This could be interesting.”

When the world’s first beef burger was taste-tested, the response was surprisingly far from “yuck”. Hanni Ruetzler, a food researcher and one of the food critics given the task of tasting the beef patty, described the burger as “close to meat… the consistency is perfect, but I miss salt and pepper.” Fellow taster Josh Schonwald, author of the book “The Taste of Tomorrow: Dispatches from the Future of Food”, said, “The mouthfeel is like meat. I miss the fat, there’s a leanness to it, but the general bite feels like a hamburger.”  

Lab food and medical parallels

In the case of lab-made meat and milk, the ingredients are the same as in their natural counterparts, it’s just the way that the final product is produced that is different. The fact that we can produce biological products in the lab that are identical to that of the real source is actually nothing new, at least not in the medical field.

The methods for producing lab-grown meat are similar to those being used to generate human skin grafts for extreme burn victims. There are currently several methods being developed that involve taking a small sample of skin in order to isolate and then culture another type of adult stem cell, known as a keratinocyte. Like the muscle satellite cells, keratinocytes are involved in normal skin repair and so can provide a starting point for the wound to recover.

Historically, skin grafts have been performed by taking large patches of skin (eg from the inner thigh or butt cheek) for grafting. Besides being a painful and invasive procedure, such areas of usable skin are often not possible to obtain after severe burn incidents. Growing these cells in a lab offers a much better alternative.

The genetically engineered yeast technology used to make milk and egg white proteins has also been used for 40 years now to make proteins that are used in medicine. The best-known example of this is insulin for the treatment of diabetes. Insulin used to be isolated from the pancreas of a pig, where 360kg of pancreas was required to collect a meagre 450g of insulin protein. By using yeast instead, the process is not only vastly more economical, but also more humane. Insulin is just one of many medical-use proteins that are produced in yeast as opposed to the original biological source.

Do we need to make lab food?

The likes of Mosa Meat, Perfect Day and Clara Foods believe that there is a great need for lab-produced foods. The main point in their campaigns is to promote sustainability by reducing animal consumption and changing the way we produce foods that come from animals. With approximately 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions coming from livestock, choosing to eat less meat is touted as the single-most effective thing we as consumers can do to combat climate change.

Lab-grown meat would require drastically fewer cows. Prof Mark Post has calculated that only 225g of nutrients are required to produce 200g of beef protein, whereas livestock require 7kg of grain to produce the same amount of protein.

 
  Cows - especially dairy cows - produce a large proportion of the world's greenhouse gas emissions.   USDA NRCS Montana/Flickr  (Public Domain)

Cows - especially dairy cows - produce a large proportion of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. USDA NRCS Montana/Flickr (Public Domain)

 

But even if climate change and animal welfare weren’t issues to consider, it’s a fact that there is a growing population to feed and current farming practices are not going to be able to keep up. Lab-grown food technologies have the capacity to produce the same if not greater quantities of food, with relatively minimal use of environmental resources such as land and water. It’s hard to argue with the numbers — lab-produced food products offer a very real solution to several global issues.

The future of lab food

So, will we be seeing lab-grown food products on supermarket shelves soon? Currently, there are still some technological challenges in terms of upscaling the technology, but this is already moving at a rapid pace. For example, when Mosa Meats presented its first lab-grown burger in 2013, it cost USD$325,000. In the space of two years they were able to lower that cost to just $11.  Prof Post is certain that in a few decades, lab-grown beef will be a full-blown industry able to compete with the traditional grass-fed beef market.

Animal-free egg whites and dairy products are even closer to becoming a reality, since the technology is already well established for industrial medical purposes. Clara Foods’ egg whites have attracted a whopping USD$1.7m in funding, and they are now looking for corporate buyers. Perfect Day is similarly planning on partnering up with various companies that act as suppliers for more established dairy brands, and will be ready to launch their products within the next few years.

Lab-grown meat is an attractive option for people who would like to be vegetarian for environmental reasons, but just love their steak too much. Likewise, vegans who secretly miss pavlova covered in cream could rejoice over the animal-free versions of egg whites and dairy products.

But how can we overcome the yuck factor? The key is an understanding that lab-made food is not so unusual after all. When you take food for what it is — just a mix of different molecules or cells — and understand that the methods used to produce it in the lab are safe enough for medical use, perhaps you will be bold enough to add some lab-grown hamburgers to your grocery list.

Edited by Sumudu Narayana and Deborah Kane