Virginia Tech researchers among team awarded $10M from USDA to bring cultivated meat closer to dinner plates

Though the private cellular agriculture industry has made strides in recent years, including the launch of the world’s first commercially available cultured meat product in Singapore in 2020, this funding in public research comes at a time when several factors stifle significant production scale-up: the high cost of production, incomplete knowledge of consumer preferences, and limited access to suitable cell lines to begin the cell culture process, to name a few.

Whether a fish fillet, a beef patty, or a chicken nugget, everything begins with cells — the basic building blocks of organisms.

“In our lab, we’re focused on stem cells from aquatic species to create seafood products,” explained Lexi Duscher, a postdoctoral researcher at the Virginia Seafood AREC and grant Co-PI working in Ovissipour’s lab.

Using fish stem cells, which can be ethically collected from live animals, Duscher will differentiate cells to selectively grow muscle and fat cells — the same cells and tissues that make up the fish fillets you can buy at the store. The cells, grown in specialized media in the lab, will then be assembled into a fish fillet.

Ovissipour and his team at the Virginia Seafood AREC will address gaps in cellular agriculture development specific to seafood products. Funding will support stem cell line development for priority seafood species, research into alternative media for growing cells, and machine learning and artificial intelligence applications to optimize production and reduce cost.

The project brings together six academic institutions —Virginia Tech, Tufts University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of California, Davis, Virginia State University, and the University of Massachusetts, Boston. Their collaboration will provide a clearer picture of what this novel technology could make possible for consumers, the environment, and the future of food.

Led by David Kaplan of Tufts University, the multidisciplinary research team leverages individual expertise in molecular biology, biomedical engineering, food chemistry, food safety, environmental science, marketing, and more. Researchers from Virginia Tech will receive $3.2 million in funding to help address barriers stifling industry scale-up for cellular agriculture as a novel food production system, ultimately helping to secure the future food supply and provide consumers with new product options to experience their favorite meat dishes in a new way.

The team will deliver target consumer preference information, data on consumer willingness to pay for lab-grown products, media and cell lines for terrestrial and aquatic animals, and an education and training pathway to equip the next generation of professionals with the multidisciplinary skillsets needed to provide technical guidance and leadership for the budding industry.

“In addition to the science, a trained and capable workforce is required to bolster the field of cellular agriculture,” Kaplan said. “The rapid growth of industries focused on alternative protein-rich foods over the past five years has left a gap in available trained individuals to support the technology development and company expansion.” 

Building a bite of food requires the growth of millions of cells. A major technical challenge inhibiting industry scale-up is the cost of the specialized, nutrient-rich media used to grow cells at a high volume in lab settings.

The media traditionally used for cell culture in biomedical applications uses bovine serum harvested from animals. This serum-based media is as expensive as it is ethically dubious in its sourcing for use in cellular agriculture applications.

“More than 90 percent of the cell culture cost is because of the media, and more than 99 percent of the media cost is because of the bovine serum,” Ovissipour said. “We are using bioprocessing technology and fermentation to convert agricultural wastes, various insects, algae, and other resources into growth factors for cells to replace serum, and we are also developing a recirculating system to use this spent serum-free media to save more money for industry, provide an animal-free alternative, and reduce waste.”


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