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Cultivated meat production costs slashed by 90 percent with new technology

The future of sustainable food production has taken a significant leap forward. Researchers at the Tufts University Center for Cellular Agriculture (TUCCA), led by Professor David Kaplan, have engineered bovine muscle cells that could dramatically reduce the costs associated with cultivated meat production. 

The innovative approach holds immense potential for the food industry, steering it towards more eco-friendly and cost-effective practices.

Fibroblast growth factor

At the heart of this advancement is the modification of bovine (beef) muscle cells to produce their own growth factors, particularly fibroblast growth factor (FGF). 

Skeletal muscle cells are the primary type found in products like steaks and hamburgers, and FGF plays a crucial role in the development and differentiation of these cells.

Prior to this breakthrough, external addition of growth factors was necessary, significantly driving up production costs. 

“FGF is not exactly a nutrient,” said Andrew Stout, the lead researcher on the project. “It’s more like an instruction for the cells to behave in a certain way. What we did was engineer bovine muscle stem cells to produce these growth factors and turn on the signaling pathways themselves.”

Significant breakthrough

The traditional method of adding growth factors to the cell culture media is both costly and inefficient, as these factors need frequent replenishment. 

By enabling the cells to produce their own FGF, the researchers have effectively eliminated a major cost component, potentially reducing overall meat production expenses by a staggering 90 percent. This advancement could pave the way for making cultivated meat more affordable and accessible to consumers.

Further optimization is needed

However, the journey to commercial viability is not without its challenges. According to Stout, while the cost of media has been significantly reduced, further optimization is needed to make the process industry-ready. 

The engineered cells exhibited slower growth, but Stout is optimistic about overcoming this hurdle through strategic modifications in the expression and timing of FGF or altering other cell growth pathways. 

“While we significantly cut the cost of media, there is still some optimization that needs to be done to make it industry-ready,” said Stout. “We did see slower growth with the engineered cells, but I think we can overcome that.” 

Broader implications 

Notably, this method does not involve adding foreign genes but instead focuses on editing and expressing existing genes, which could simplify regulatory approvals.

The implications of this technology extend beyond beef production. Stout believes that this strategy could be applied to other types of meat, such as chicken, pork, or fish, since many cell types rely on FGF for growth. The variability in growth factors for different species presents an area for further research.

“Work is continuing at TUCCA and elsewhere to improve cultivated meat technology, including exploring ways to reduce the cost of nutrients in the growth media, and improving the texture, taste, and nutritional content of the meat,” said Professor Kaplan.

“Products have already been awarded regulatory approval for consumption in the U.S. and globally, although costs and availability remain limiting. I think advances like this will bring us much closer to seeing affordable cultivated meat in our local supermarkets within the next few years.”

The study is published in the journal Cell Reports Sustainability


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