Cell Culture and Precision Fermentation: The Future of Alt-Protein? - Alt-Protein Primer #4

Are these two technologies the key to unlocking sustainable, secure protein supplies for the future of our planet?

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Happy Tuesday Market Shakers. Today we explore two technologies that have thrilling potential to unlock a sustainable and secure protein supply to feed future generations: precision fermentation (PF) and cell culture.

The second article in our Alt-Protein Primer covers how plant-based proteins and fermentation-based proteins are made. There you can also learn about the other two types of fermentation in addition to PF, traditional and biomass.

We’re delighted to welcome back leading expert in alternative proteins and their production Dr. Maya Benami, who supported this article with interviews and reviews.


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How are proteins made using precision fermentation?

You can decide to produce a protein from microbes via precision fermentation.  

Precision Fermentation (PF) uses microbes as “cell factories” for producing specific functional ingredients. The process is used to produce bio-identical proteins without the use of animals. The range of outputs is vast. Examples include everything from whey and casein, proteins found in milk, to soy leghemoglobin used to imitate red meat juices in the Impossible Burger. 

PF works by manipulating the DNA of microorganisms like yeast or fungi. These microbes are then tasked to create the target animal proteins when supplied with the appropriate nutrients and sugar in fermenters. This process is similar to what is done during beer brewing. During fermentation, these unique microbes produce proteins identical to those found in animal products. These proteins can then be processed into a protein isolate that can be used to create a range of products, including dairy, animal fat, and egg alternatives. You can meet some of the companies who are making these products in our first Alt-Protein Primer article.

What are the benefits of producing protein using precision fermentation?

🐄 PF eliminates costs of conventional protein production. Using PF means animal protein is made in a lab using far fewer resources than livestock protein production. Much less land, water and energy is required for PF. By 2030 as much as 100 times less land and 10 times less water according to some projections. In 2000 it cost $1 million to produce 1 kg of protein. Now it costs around $100 a day. According to analysts from the independent think tank RethinkX, whey and casein will be produced via PF at cost parity with conventional products by 2025. From there the costs will fall even less.  

🗾 PF enables decentralized production. PF is currently produced in small-scale facilities using the power of fermentation to reproduce target proteins rapidly. It has the potential to transform the food supply chain by shrinking it considerably. Animal proteins no longer need a complex supply chain network that relies on growing crops for feed, processing them, and transporting them to a farm to feed cows.

What are the challenges of producing proteins with precision fermentation?

🎯Target selection for precision fermentation. A vast array of proteins in animal products that in specific concentrations and combinations create the crave-able tastes and textures of the animal products we all love to consume. Deciding which ones to replicate is tough. For starters, the proteins need to be stable and retain functionality across upstream and downstream production processes. Then there’s the question of efficiency. Do the target proteins produce the desired function efficiently? Or does it take an unreasonable quantity, extra processing, and purification to replicate the character of an animal product?

Currently, the only way to test and potentially solve these challenges is through expensive and time-consuming processes, including empirical testing of target proteins, sensory food tests, consumer taste testing panels, and predictive analysis. 

👍Regulatory and consumer responses. The US has made progress in regulating precision fermented proteins, however, much of the world has not made progress yet. Precision fermentation generally involves genetically modifying the DNA of these microbes, thereby raising ethical, and at times, safety concerns amongst consumers. 

The key hindrance to the adoption of most genetic modification technologies is the opposition by consumers and the labelling variations associated with consumer perception. 

Many respected organizations such as The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, and the British Royal Society, have examined the evidence and concluded: consuming foods containing ingredients derived from GM [genetically modified] crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniques.

Worldwide adoption of GM foods is far from a reality. Based on the various studies conducted across many countries, misinformation among consumers is the main reason behind this opposition – especially in many countries in the European Union with strict definitions, import regulations, and legislation against genetic modifications of living cells. 

Consumers are also wary about PF-based proteins. Even though PF has been used to produce proteins for a long time, like rennet for cheese, the idea of inserting or manipulating DNA sequences sounds very “unnatural”. Consumers have expressed concern in early consumer perception surveys.

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How are cultivated proteins made?

Last, but certainly not least, comes cultured or cultivated meat proteins. Cultivated meat proteins use cells from animals reproduced in highly sterile lab environments to form a raw version of animal products. Cultivated animal proteins have great potential as high-fidelity substitutes for regular meat, fish, dairy, and eggs.

So how are near-identical cell-cultured protein products made?

The manufacturing process begins by taking and storing stem cells from an animal. The cells are then grown in bioreactors or cultivators. 

The cells are fed an oxygen-rich cell culture medium made up of basic nutrients such as amino acids, glucose, vitamins, and inorganic salts and supplemented with proteins and other growth factors.

This mimics the natural processes that occur in animal bodies. 

The composition of the medium is tweaked to trigger immature cells to form skeletal muscle and connective tissues that make up meat. In animals, the muscle tissue normally forms around bones. Edible scaffolds, often plant-based, are used instead of bones in cultured meat production due to today’s available technology capabilities.

Some examples of scaffolds include polysaccharides such as chitosan, alginate, or cellulose; proteins such as zein; or complex composites such as lignin or textured vegetable protein. Cultivated sashimi maker WildType uses a plant-based scaffold to help grow their salmon cells.

The differentiated cells are then harvested, prepared, and packaged into final products. This whole process takes around two to eight weeks, considerably faster than producing natural animal meat.

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What are the benefits of cultivating proteins for human consumption?

♻️ Cultivated meat has the potential to reduce the cost of animal protein. By being able to grow meat, chicken, seafood or dairy proteins in a lab, the environmental, ethical, and monetary costs of conventional and plant-protein production are dramatically reduced. For example, the land, water, food, and energy required to raise cows for beef could instead be reduced by at least tenfold. This reduces financial and environmental costs. Cultivated meat proteins are also free from the typical contamination risks which have been a serious hindrance to the animal protein industry and resulted in a strong reliance on antibiotics. 

However, there’s a long way to go (at least five years) to achieve the technical requirements for scaling appreciable quantities of cultivated meat production, especially for whole-cut meat products. That said, investors and innovators are doing their bit to move the industry along as fast as possible.

In Japan, cultivated protein pioneer IntegriCulture is making breakthroughs in developing the infrastructure to enable affordable and accessible cell culture. So far they claim to be able to generate cell culture at 1/60 of conventional animal serum based alternatives. Exclusive interview coming soon!

👩‍🌾 Cultivated proteins support local production. Cultivating meat involves extracting cells from a living animal and then growing and multiplying them in a bioreactor. This has multiple advantages over conventional and plant protein production. It requires much less land and natural resources. The feed supply chain is also no longer at the mercy of bad weather conditions.

What’s more, cultivated meat production facilities can potentially be set up in local areas all over the world and integrated into some types of current food processing and packaging facilities. They can also make use of libraries of cell- lines from different breeds of animals. Kobe beef for example could be produced on U.S. soil, eliminating the economic and carbon costs of shipping animal products across the world. 

Building de-centralized cultivated meat production facilities or incorporating them into current meat production facilities would lower the need for air conditioning and refrigeration – the primary drivers for very potent fluorinated gas emissions. Less air conditioning of facilities housing slaughterhouses, butchers, and meat truck workers, along with reduced refrigeration would be required for cultivated meat production because animals are not slaughtered, exposed to contaminating organisms, transported over extensive distances, and stored over long durations.

🌱 Cultivating animal proteins can give the environment a break. Transitioning to more sustainable livestock agriculture systems that are complimented by cultivated meat production would reduce the burdens placed on our land by existing livestock farming. Cultivating animal protein would free up a lot of the land and resources currently being used for conventional livestock farming. This land could be better utilized. For example, re-wilding habitats would naturally reduce emissions, capture greenhouse gases, produce oxygen and generate more food for people. 

Prioritizing cultivated meat production would expedite the reduction of the lesser known yet very impactful greenhouse gases methane and nitrous oxide. These greenhouse gases originate from three leading sources – the effects of deforestation, enteric fermentation (the digestive process of ruminant animals like burps from cows), and manure management – all of them related to conventional livestock agriculture.

What are the challenges of producing cultivated meat proteins?

💸It’s expensive. Current estimated production cost of cultured or cultivated beef is still roughly four to eight times the price of regular beef. Note that this is considerably less than the $330,000 that the world’s first cultured burger cost in 2013. Cost reduction in the below areas are needed before cultivated meat even gets close to price parity with regular meat.

🧑‍🔧There are a range of technical challenges. The cultivated meat industry needs to discover and make available new, more durable, and long-lasting cell lines from many species of animals in order to enhance the efficiency of cultured protein production. Developing stem cell lines for alternative proteins is under-researched and has high financial and time costs. Government institutions and non-profits, like the GFI, are currently cataloging them and creating banks for people to access.

Scaffolds are a big challenge for cultivated proteins. Animal meat forms around bone. When we create cultivated meat we either need an easily removable scaffold or an edible scaffold that takes the place of bone so that cells form muscle structures like meat. The industry currently doesn’t have a good solution for this that is scalable. We need a lot more R&D for this.

😬Consumer perception: Many potential consumers are hesitant to be eating animal products that have been grown in a lab. Yet, consumer research indicates more consumers are willing to try cultivated meat than not. Willingness to try correlates to the amount of information given about cultured meat production processes and its health benefits. Creating opportunities for customers to experience cultured meat is key. 

Here food services can play a big role in raising consumer awareness. There are several examples of restaurants already working on this.

🇸🇬 Singaporean restaurant 1880 debuted cultivated chicken on their menu in December 2020 soon after Singapore became the first country in the world to regulate and allow consumers to buy and try cultivated chicken.

🇮🇱 Israel’s “The Chicken” is a test kitchen restaurant run by SuperMeat where taste tests for cultivated chicken are conducted.

🇳🇱 The Dutch parliament also voted in favour of legalizing taste-testing of cultivated meat earlier this year (2022). Food Ingredients First reports that companies are working with the government to work out how to conduct tests.

That’s all folks

After today’s primer, you should have a general overview of how the main categories of alternative protein are made and the benefits and challenges of each. 

We’d like to say a huge thank you to Dr. Maya Benami for taking the time to interview with us and support our article.

We’ll see you next week where we’ll be exploring the manufacturing process that turns alt-proteins into products.

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