Why cultured meat? Through a researcher’s lens
Andrew Stout is a research fellow with New Harvest, the non-profit research institute advancing innovations in cultured meat and cellular agriculture. ChemoMetec is proud to be partnering with New Harvest in their work to build the field of cellular agriculture.
We spoke to Andrew about why cultured meat is his passion and where it might be headed.
How did you get interested in cultured meat?
I first got interested in the prospect after reading a New Yorker article entitled “Test Tube Burgers” written in 2011. I read the article as part of a Food Journalism class that I took in my senior year of high school and became really fascinated with the idea.
In college, I got the opportunity to pursue this thread further by working in Dr. Mark Post’s lab for one summer at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. Mark’s lab was the group that was highlighted in that New Yorker article, and they were busy trying to produce the world’s first cultured hamburger.
It was an awesome experience, and energized my continued interest in the topic, and continued involvement in the field.
Why is cultured meat important?
So many reasons! Here are four that most motivate me. In no particular order:
A) conventional meat production is hugely environmentally deleterious. It is responsible for a large percentage of anthropogenic greenhouse gases and uses much of the world’s arable land and water resources. Cultured meat offers the potential to reduce meat’s environmental footprint.
B) Along with environmental concerns, conventional—particularly high-intensity animal agriculture—raises many ethical concerns. Cultured meat could offer vastly improved animal welfare, as the need to slaughter animals for meat is removed from the picture.
C) From a human health and food security perspective, diversification of our agricultural system is beneficial for building a resilient food system, and reduced reliance on concentrated animal agriculture makes our food system less susceptible to zoonotic disease or supply-chain disruptions.
And D) I just think it’s scientifically really cool. Cultured meat asks us to look at tissue engineering from a totally new angle, where price and scale are key, and traditional biomedical considerations (e.g., tissue function or implantability) are less relevant. I think there’s a lot to learn from this new perspective. Also, the potential to generate novel foods is really exciting to me.
Andrew carrying out his research using the NucleoCounter® NC-200™ and NC-3000™ (photo taken November 2019)
What is the focus of your research project?
I work on synthetic biology and metabolic engineering as they apply to cultured meat. Most recently, this has taken the form of nutritional engineering of bovine muscle cells.
Specifically, we showed that inserting the biosynthetic pathway for antioxidant plant nutrients (called carotenoids) into bovine muscle stem cells can enable the production of these nutrients in cells, and that these nutrients can offer novel nutritional functionality to a cultured meat product.
What are the challenges of working in cultured meat?
Scale, scale, scale and cost, cost, cost. As I mentioned, cultured meat requires us to look at tissue engineering from a whole new set of design constraints.
This is exciting, but also really challenging, as cost has to-date been only minimally relevant from a medical perspective. Exploring innovative new ways to drive down the cost of production (i.e., by reducing the cost of culture media) will be essential for progress in this field.
How has ChemoMetec helped in advancing your research?
ChemoMetec products have helped by speeding up and simplifying our workflow significantly. The NC-200 has made cell counting much faster (and this is something that we have to do a lot in our work).
Along with the NC-200, the NC-3000 has really helped me to assess the success of my genetic engineering efforts. Particularly, the transfection efficiency assay has made verification of gene expression extremely fast and simple.
Previously, we used a hemacytometer for cell counting. This was much slower than the NC-200.
For transfection efficiency assays, I would need to use flow cytometry, which was similarly much slower than the NC-3000.
What impact do you see your research having on cultured meat?
I hope that the nutritional engineering work that we’re doing piques the scientific community’s/general public’s interest about what is possible with cultured meat, particularly in the context of novel foods and foods with enhanced nutritional properties.
Where do you see the future of cultured meat over the next 5 to 10 years?
I try to steer clear of prediction (since there is still so much that is unknown in the field). However, my hopes for the next 5-10 years are that it is possible to purchase cultured meat products (and that they’re delicious, of course!)
I also hope to see a wealth of academic research on the topic, with new innovations that impact not only cultured meat’s development, but also offer spillover benefits to related disciplines.
Hopefully, this growth of published research comes in parallel with increased public funding for research on cultured meat and the whole field of cellular agriculture in general.
Learn more about Andrew’s research in his recent publication in Metabolic Engineering.
Visit New Harvest’s website to discover more about their work.