Evolution of Cultured Meat
Since ancient times, humans have wanted to satisfy the demand for food, not only to please individual hunger like other animals but in order to maintain the stability of the communities. The first sedentary farmers appeared 12,000 years ago in the fertile crescent. Cattle raising and agriculture were the first strategies to ensure prosperity. Strange as it may sound, despite all the technological advances and profound agrarian reforms that have taken place throughout civilizations, the disadvantages of having to grow a whole animal for consumption are nearly as many as when the first livestock farmers did it. They can be summarized in diseases, time investment, low production, and high maintenance costs.
However, it was not until recently that biotechnology made it possible to consider the possibility of avoiding the death of livestock to feed the human population, reducing disadvantages. In the words of Winston Churchill: “we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium”.
Where did the idea come from?
During the evolution of microbiology, interesting facts were discovered. For example, there were cells that seemed to be able to live much longer if environmental conditions were favorable. The observations became more and more acute around the central figure of life, the cell; until Rudolf Virchow’s theory mentioned the famous phrase: “Omni cellula e cellula”, what means “every cell comes from another cell”. These paradigm changes implied that the formation of animal and plant tissues was derived from a single cell containing the necessary instructions to differentiate into each tissue, under specific circumstances. That idea would be the perfect germ for cultured meat development since it would be possible to generate only the muscular tissues from among the 21 types of human tissues from just a few cells.
A preliminary step: cell farming
While we can say that when these ideas were going through the minds of researchers there were already many ways to maintain and grow cells, it is no less true that they were just bacterial cell cultures, with two main objectives: medical diagnosis or biological characterization. Neither were they isolated mammalian cells, nor was the objective to grow them for the mere fact of producing animal biomass. Not that it had not been tried, but it was a very difficult task. The metabolic requirements of mammalian cells were very different, and it appeared that they were only capable of replicating for a few cycles before they became unstable and perished. After much experimentation, ways were found to largely avoid the problems of nutrient depletion, as well as the senescence associated with cell concentration.
By the 1950s this was already a routine technique in the laboratory, and even today cells from long-dead patients are used and maintained in laboratories around the world for biomedicine purposes, saving thousands.
Stem cells hit the spot
Nevertheless, they could not be just any type of cells. Unlike plants, most cells in an animal body are differentiated and cannot generate all the cell lineages that make up a complete body. This is even more accentuated in complex animals such as mammals. The only cells in a human body that can generate all the types are the germ cells, or rather; the fusion of them. When the two gametes unite, the mother cell par excellence is formed: the zygote. Of course, classically, some cells are known that retain some of this adaptive capacity, which we call adult stem cells, which are multipotent (they can only generate some lineages). This posed a problem because although there were already specific means to grow mammalian cells, there was no way we could obtain something like a laboratory-steak because we lacked that molecular orchestra directed by gene expression that only occurs in certain moments and circumstances as delicate as microscopic.
But, once again, scientific advances surprised the world when the Yamanaka factors were discovered, four gene products that managed to revert the differentiated state of somatic cells to a pluripotent cell similar to the embryonic state. This was a great discovery since we were talking about pluripotent cells induced at will, capable of manufacturing tissues of the three embryonic layers, including muscle. From that moment on, harvesting cells from animals without killing or injuring them to manufacture muscle tissue was possible thanks to the tireless effort of humans, which, although we have already forgotten, is a vestige of our species’ drive for survival.
Current State & Start-ups
Currently, the synthesis of meat in the laboratory is a scientific fact. Although it still has differences with respect to natural meat, these are due to deficiencies in the oxygen perfusion system, since the arteries are much more efficient in this endeavor. Also, in recent years, some innovations have been developed in terms of 3D printing of living tissue, but unfortunately, there are still some obstacles that prevent maximizing production. A much sought-after solution is not to use whey of animal origin, but a whey from vegetable ingredients. It seems that there are already some prototypes and they need to pass scaling. This would allow, despite the nutritional stagnation in terms of synthetic biology (the accumulation of minerals and vitamins is uncertain in these meats), to make artificial meat competitive on the market.
The offer of start-ups is very varied, as this niche has many products. IntegriCulture is a Tokyo-based start-up that aims to be the first to commercialize foie gras based on cultured chicken hepatocytes. Shiok Meats, in Southeast Asia, has the ambitious goal of producing shrimp, lobster, and other crustaceans using this technique. In the more traditional sense, we have the Ethicameat line, already available on the market, from the start-up Biotech Foods, consisting of meat grown without genetic modifications. There are many more examples that are already commercializing or will do so in the near future, many of them claiming to have solved the serum problem.
Moreover, there are some peer-reviewed articles discussing the plausibility of renewing the meat industry with this procedure, since it is expensive and not very productive, in addition to the fact that there is some controversy regarding CO2 emissions too. What is clear is that it will represent an interesting alternative because it offers many advantages, especially in the ethical, territorial, nutritional, and health fields.