As everyone knows, while real meat is extremely tasty and hard to part with for a lot of people, it is also extremely wasteful, requires a lot of water, plants, and the energy to grow an animal. At the same time, this produces a lot of CO2 and methane thanks to processes like respiration and digestion. Also, killing animals for meat presents some ethical dilemmas.
In any case, this article is about Multus Media, a UK-based startup that doesn’t make lab-grown meat. Multus Media plans to supply a lot of companies that will grow the meat. Acquiring and programming the stem cells needed for cultivated meat is only one part of the problem, while the other part is finding ways to feed those cells without growing a whole digestive system or whole animal. What we are talking about here is a very important component called the growth medium.
Right now, the cost of serum-free growth medium is approximately $100 per liter and represents about 80% of the total cost of production of clean cultivated meat. In order to make clean meat a competitive alternative to regular meat, the price of the growth medium needs to fall down all the way to just $1 per liter. Multus Media has found a way to reduce the current price by about 80%, but is unwilling to give an exact number because this is based off of preliminary data and it is still finalizing the results, however, if one thing is clear then it’s that significant progress has been made here.
The way Multus Media achieved this milestone was by genetically altering yeast to produce the complex proteins required for the growth medium which are then extracted using the fermentation process, so from the outside a factory making growth medium will look a lot like a factory producing beer. If any of this sounds familiar to you, that is probably because the Impossible Burger is made in a very similar way. The secret sauce of the Impossible Burger is a plant-based heme that is present in soy but only in minute quantities, so the company modified yeast to produce much more of this heme and then extracts it using the fermentation process. In some ways this has been done for years to make the proteins found in milk and eggs, but in the case of fake meat they make plant-based heme, and in the case of lab-grown meat they make the proteins needed to grow muscle tissue cells without growing a whole animal.
Currently, the company is attempting to lower the costs further, but by 2021 it hopes to start a commercially viable system for the production of a limited number of growth factors that can then be scaled up. Afterward, the company will start developing growth factors for non-mammalian cells like seafood and poultry such as chicken.
The possibilities of this technology are endless, and just to ignite your imagination let me give you an example. In Japan there is a fish delicacy called Fugu made from an extremely poisonous blowfish, and training a chef to prepare the dish safely takes many years of practice because the slightest mistake will kill the customer. Now imagine growing the delicacy without the actual fish, without any of the poison. Or if we have the DNA of extinct species like the Dodo or the Heath Hen (which Thanksgiving started with rather than Turkeys) we could literally start rediscovering new kinds of foods people haven’t eaten in centuries. As a matter of fact, bringing an extinct species back to life is more difficult than just growing its meat. Another example is that cultivated meat can be designed to conform to specific criteria, such as what percentage of fat it should have or the percentage of different types of saturated amino-acids it should have, and so on.
This is all part of synthetic biology, which is a fascinating subject we have written on before and will dive deeper into in future videos and articles.