A breakthrough in cultured meat research-animal component free production
Climate change, one of the biggest challenges humanity has yet to face. We all contribute to it by our own global carbon footprint through activities such as travelling and consuming carnivore diets. As the demand for meat increases, it is essential to look for ways for sustainable meat production in order to reduce our global carbon footprint.
Cultured Meat is a novel food technology that promises to resolve such environmental and ethical issues associated with meat production. Instead of sacrificing an entire animal, muscle stem cells are isolated and grown in bioreactors, then differentiated to muscle tissue resulting in cultured meat. In order to realise this on the market, the product has to be safe, producible in high amounts and sold for an accessible price. Previous techniques still faced difficulties in fulfilling these criteria due to two major technical issues. The first one is that stem cells still rely on animal-derived components in their culture medium, also known as ‘cell feed’, and the second one is the loss of stemness. A complex process in which aged cells are incapable of forming muscle tissue.
However, it seems that these two issues have been tackled lately. Dr. Tobias Messmer presented the solutions in his PhD, which he defended on the 21st of April at Maastricht University. The first issue involves growth (proliferation) and differentiation of muscle stem cells still being reliant on animal-derived components. Both processes require cell feed, which until recently still contained animal-derived components. In his research, Messmer created process-compatible animal-component free media. At first, the growth medium developed by Mosa Meat was only in favour of other cell types than muscle stem cells. Hence, he used bioinformatics to tailor the medium and successfully created one that did stimulate growth of muscle stem cells. After proliferation, muscle stem cells need to be skewed into forming muscle tissue. This process, known as differentiation, also relied on a medium with animal-derived components at first. Again, research of Messmer (through RNA sequencing) lead to successful development of an animal-component free medium for the differentiation process. Hence, the entire process of cultivating meat is now animal-component free!
The second issue, loss of stemness, was first characterized by Messmer and his colleagues. After screening for different stemness compounds, inhibitors for an important cellular pathway were added to the medium which optimized their long-term survival and maintained their capacity to form muscle tissue.
Conclusively, research of Messmer and his colleagues showed routes to solve the biological limitations in the growth and differentiation of muscle stem cells. Importantly, it indicates that these cells have the ability to form muscle tissue without the need for other animal components, enabling an ethically and economically more viable large-scale production. A small disclaimer though: it might still take years before cultured meat is available in large quantities in our supermarkets. We are, however, one step closer to reducing our own global carbon footprint.