Sizzling interest in lab-grown meat belies lack of basic research

‘Clean meat’ firms have drawn tens of millions of dollars in investment in recent years, but technical hurdles remain.

A juicy beef burger topped with bacon in a restaurant in Saigon, Vietnam

Culturing beef, pork and other meats in the lab is a technical challenge.Credit: Phong Pham/Alamy

Private investment in lab-grown meat is soaring as companies chase the promise of boundless — and delicious — nuggets, steaks and burgers cultured in vitrorather than reared on the hoof. Clean-meat start-ups have raked in tens of millions of dollars in the last two years from billionaires such as Bill Gates and Richard Branson, and the agriculture giants Cargill and Tyson.

But funding for academic research on lab-grown meat has lagged behind, and some researchers say that it is sorely needed. Despite the booming commercial interest in developing meat that is eco-friendly and ethically sound, critics argue that the industry lacks much of the scientific and engineering expertise needed to bring lab-grown meat to the masses. And any advances made by commercial firms are often protected as trade secrets.

“There are lots of technical hurdles here to overcome,” says Paul Mozdziak, a muscle biologist at North Carolina State University in Raleigh who studies lab-grown chicken and turkey. The challenges include developing better cell lines and nutrient media to feed those cells, along with scaffolding materials to help shape cultured cells into tissue, and bioreactor platforms for large-scale meat production.

Open-source research in the field got a boost on 6 February, when the Good Food Institute (GFI) — a think-tank in Washington DC that promotes alternatives to conventional meat — announced the winners of its inaugural grant programme. The group will split US$3 million among 14 projects — 6 working to develop lab-grown meat and 8 focusing on plant-based proteins. Each team will receive up to $250,000 over two years.

“It does seem like the largest contribution that I can think of toward cellular agriculture research,” says Kate Krueger, the research director of New Harvest, a non-profit organization in New York City that has contributed almost $1 million in the past decade to academics working on clean-meat research.

Meting out funding

One area where the money could make a difference is in developing publicly available cell lines derived from the muscles of cows, pigs, fish and other common food animals. Without such cells, researchers must either obtain tissues fresh from slaughterhouses or run their experiments with mouse cells. The Norwegian Center for Stem Cell Research in Oslo plans to use a GFI grant to help build its Frozen Farmyard, a repository of agriculturally relevant cell lines.

Other researchers want to apply lessons learned from decades of research in regenerative medicine. Amy Rowat, a biophysicist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who normally studies the biomechanics of cancer cells, is attempting to design scaffolds that can grow combinations of different types of cow cell to promote the marbling of fat in lab-grown steaks.

“It’s still the same basic tissue-engineering principles,” says Andrew Stout, a New Harvest fellow at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. “But we need to start thinking about the design constraints from a food and sustainability perspective.”

Clean-meat entrepreneurs, for their part, say they hope to see a larger contingent of scientists step into the field. The industry needs “innovative approaches to high-yield cell-based meat biomanufacturing”, says Nicholas Genovese, the chief scientific officer of Memphis Meats in Berkeley, California. “Academic research can play a significant and lasting role in accelerating the path to market.”

Where’s the beef?

The quest to culture meat in a dish dates back decades. In the 1990s, Dutch researcher and entrepreneur Willem van Eelen cobbled together research funding from private investors and produced the first clean-meat patent. He later convinced the Dutch government to award €2 million (US$2.3 million) to a consortium of scientists interested in taking the work further. This ultimately led Mark Post, a vascular biologist at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, to unveil the world’s first lab-grown hamburger in 2013 — at a cost of €250,000.

But public financing for the project dried up as Dutch lawmakers prioritized research into cheaper plant-based protein sources, such as bean flours and pea protein, says Post, who has since founded the food-technology company Mosa Meat in Maastricht. And aside from a few odd pilot grants, such as one from NASA in the late 1990s to develop in vitro fish flesh, few government agencies have spent significant money on such research — in large part, experts say, because it is risky, complex and crosses disciplines.

In the United States, the National Institutes of Health funds most tissue-engineering research, but focuses on biomedical applications; the Department of Agriculture funds most food-science studies, but spends little on lab-grown meat. “This falls between the chairs,” says Amit Gefen, a bioengineer at Tel Aviv University in Israel who is trying to grow chicken meat on scaffolds created by stripping apple flesh of its cells.

Funding opportunities are slowly beginning to sprout up in some countries. The Israel Innovation Authority funds the lab-grown steak start-up Aleph Farms, whose work is based on the research of biomedical engineer Shulamit Levenberg at the Technion–Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa. Now, the IIA is putting up more than 100 million shekels ($27.7 million) over eight years to create a food-tech incubator to help support many more such academic spin-offs.

Not so basic

Private investment in the clean-meat industry has already cut the cost of production. Post says that he can make a 140-gram burger for €500. Levenberg says that her company can culture a thin slice of steak for about $50.

And with prices expected to drop further, some scientists challenge the idea that foundational research in meat cultivation is lacking.

“We’re now taking something that works with humans and works with mice and moving it into bovine cells,” says Yaakov Nahmias, a biomedical engineer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel and the chief executive of Future Meat Technologies, an Israeli start-up. “I’m not sure we’re talking about basic science any more.”

But, as with any first-generation product, there’s room for improvement, says Ido Savir, chief executive of SuperMeat in Rehovot, Israel. The initial lab-grown meats will be more akin to that found in fast food than haute cuisine, he notes. That first batch will help to “set the ground for a new industry”, but what’s needed, Savir says, is to “actually create a new field of science here”.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-00373-w