Hitting the books: Lab-grown meat is the future, just as Winston Churchill predicted

From domestication and selective breeding to synthetic insulin and CRISPR, humanity has long sought to understand, harness and harness the genetic coding of the natural world. In The Genesis Machine: Our Quest to Rewrite Life in the Age of Synthetic Biology authors Amy Webb, professor of strategic foresight at New York University’s Stern School of Business, and Andrew Hessel, co-founder and president of the Center of Excellence for Engineering Biology and the Genome Project, dive into the history of the field of synthetic biology, examine the current state of the art and imagine what a future might look like where life itself could be molecularly engineered.

Public affairs

Extract of THE GENESIS MACHINE: Our Quest to Rewrite Life in the Age of Synthetic Biology by Amy Webb and Andrew Hessel. Copyright © 2022. Available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.


It is plausible that by 2040 many societies will believe it is unethical to eat traditionally produced meat and dairy products. Some luminaries have long believed it was inevitable. In his essay “Fifty Years From Here”, published in 1931, Winston Churchill asserted: “We will escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken to eat the breast or the wing, by growing these parts separately in a suitable medium” .

This theory was tested in 2013, when the first lab-grown burger debuted. It was grown from bovine stem cells in the laboratory of Dutch stem cell researcher Mark Post at Maastricht University, with funding from Google co-founder Sergey Brin. It was by chance that a billionaire financed the project, because the price to produce a single pancake was $375,000. But by 2015, the cost of producing a lab-grown burger had dropped to $11.43. At the end of 2020, Singapore approved a local competitor to the slaughterhouse: a bioreactor, a high-tech tank for the cultivation of organisms, managed by the American Eat Just, which produces cultured chicken nuggets. In Eat Just’s bioreactors, cells taken from live chickens are mixed with a plant-based serum and made into an edible product. Chicken nuggets produced this way are already being sold in Singapore, a highly regulated country that is also one of the world’s most important innovation hotspots. And the growing popularity of the product could accelerate its entry into the market in other countries.

An Israel-based company, Supermeat, has developed what it calls ‘crispy farmed chicken’, while California-based Finless Foods is developing farmed bluefin tuna meat, from the species sought after today. now threatened by long-standing overfishing. Other companies, including Mosa Meat (in the Netherlands), Upside Foods (in California, formerly known as Memphis Meats) and Aleph Farms (in Israel), are developing textured meats, such as steaks, which are grown in industrial-scale laboratories. . Unlike existing plant-based protein meat alternatives developed by Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, cell-based meat culture yields muscle tissue that is, molecularly, beef or pork.

Two other California companies also offer innovative products: Clara Foods serves creamy lab-grown eggs, fish that have never swum in water, and cow’s milk brewed from yeast. Perfect Day makes lab-grown “dairy” products: yogurt, cheese, and ice cream. And a nonprofit community project, Real Vegan Cheese, which started as part of the iGEM competition in 2014, is also based in California. It is an open-source DIY cheese derived from caseins (the proteins in milk) rather than harvested from animals. Casein genes are added to yeast and other microflora to produce proteins, which are purified and processed using plant fats and sugars. Investors in cultured meat and dairy include the likes of Bill Gates and Richard Branson, as well as Cargill and Tyson, two of the world’s largest conventional meat producers.

Lab-grown meat remains expensive today, but costs are expected to continue to fall as the technology matures. Until they do, some companies are creating hybrid animal and plant proteins. Startups in the UK are developing blended pork products, including bacon created from 70% cultured pig cells mixed with plant proteins. Even Kentucky Fried Chicken is exploring the possibility of selling hybrid chicken nuggets, which would be made up of 20% cultured chicken cells and 80% plants.

Moving away from traditional agriculture would have a huge positive impact on the environment. Scientists from the University of Oxford and the University of Amsterdam estimated that cultured meat would require 35-60% less energy, occupy 98% less land and produce 80-95% gas less greenhouse gas than conventional food-bred animals. A synthetic biology-centric agriculture also promises to reduce the distance between essential operators in the supply chain. In the future, large bioreactors will be located just outside major cities, where they will produce the cultured meat required by institutions such as schools, government buildings and hospitals, and perhaps even restaurants and restaurants. local grocery stores. Rather than shipping tuna from the ocean to the Midwest, which requires a complicated and energy-intensive cold chain, the fish could instead be farmed in any landlocked state. Imagine the world’s finest, most delicious bluefin tuna sushi coming not from waters near Japan, but from a bioreactor in Hastings, Nebraska. Synthetic biology will also improve the security of the global food supply. Each year, around 600 million people fall ill from contaminated food, according to estimates by the World Health Organization, and 400,000 die from it. Romaine lettuce contaminated with E. coli infected 167 people in 27 states in January 2020, resulting in 85 hospitalizations. In 2018, an intestinal parasite known as Cyclospora, which causes what is best described as explosive diarrhea, led McDonald’s, Trader Joe’s, Kroger and Walgreens to remove food from their shelves. Vertical farming can minimize these problems. But synthetic biology can also help in a different way: it is often difficult to trace the source of contaminated food and the detective work can take weeks. But a Harvard University researcher has pioneered the use of DNA barcodes that can be affixed to food products before they enter the supply chain, making them traceable in the event of a problem.

This researcher’s team engineered strains of bacteria and yeast with unique biological barcodes embedded in the spores. These spores are inert, durable, and harmless to humans, and they can be sprayed onto a wide variety of surfaces, including meat and produce. The spores are still detectable months later, even after being subjected to wind, rain, boiling, frying and microwaves. (Many farmers, including organic farmers, already spray their crops with Bacillus thuringiensis spores to kill the pests, which means chances are you’ve ingested some already.) These barcodes could not only facilitate contact tracing, but also be used to reduce food. fraud and mislabelling. In the mid-2010s, there was a rash of fake extra virgin olive oil on the market. The Functional Materials Laboratory at ETH Zurich, a public research university in Switzerland, developed a solution similar to the one devised at Harvard: DNA barcodes that revealed the producer and other key oil data.

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