About Cell Ag
What is Cellular Agriculture?
Cellular Agriculture involves cultivating cells to produce real animal products without the need to raise and slaughter animals. These range from meat to dairy to leather.
By revolutionising the way we harvest real animal products we can envisage a sustainable food future without relying on mass changes in consumer behaviour.
What are the benefits?
Cellular Agriculture has major environmental benefits over conventional farming methods. It produces less greenhouse gas emissions, and uses less water, land and energy than conventional agriculture.
A Cellular Agriculture future would also have major benefits for public health. Over half of the antibiotics sold globally are used on livestock, contributing to rapidly increasing rates of antibiotic resistance in bacteria. It is estimated that antibiotic resistance will kill more people than cancer by 2050.
It goes without saying that Cell Ag would massively reduce animal suffering. The intensive farming methods used to produce the majority of the world’s animal products are neither natural nor humane.
How does it work?
There are two main techniques used in Cellular Agriculture – tissue engineering and fermentation.
Tissue engineering involves taking some cells from a live animal and cultivating them in a controlled environment. Here they can be directed to form any type of cell, such as muscle cells in the case of meat, or skin cells in the case of leather. These cells can reproduce indefinitely, so in theory only one initial animal biopsy is required.
Fermentation involves using yeast cells to produce a desired protein. We already use this in the case of insulin production for type 1 diabetics. This is now being applied to areas such as milk proteins to produce dairy products without the need for cows.
Please see below for more details on how Cell Ag works.
How close is this to reality?
The first lab-grown burger was produced in 2013 and there are now over 40 Cellular Agriculture companies across the globe. It is estimated that Cellular Agriculture products will be available to consumers within the next 10 years.
The Nitty Gritty: More Details on the Science of Cell Ag
(Courtesy of New Harvest)
What is Cellular Agriculture?
Cellular agriculture is the production of agricultural products from cell cultures.
There are two kinds of agricultural products: acellular products and cellular products. Acellular products are made of organic molecules like proteins and fats and contain no cellular or living material. Cellular products are made of living or once-living cells.
Products harvested from cell cultures are exactly the same as those harvested from an animal or a plant; the only difference is how they are made.
How to make acellular products with Cellular Agriculture
Acellular animal products are made without animals by using a microbe like yeast or bacteria.
In the example of milk made in yeast, the yeast were altered by inserting in them the gene carrying the blueprints for casein, a milk protein. Since all cells read the same genetic code, the yeast, now carrying so-called recombinant DNA, makes casein identical to the casein cows make.
We have made acellular animal products in cell cultures before.
Animal insulin could be considered the first cellular agriculture product. In 1922, Frederick Banting, Charles Best, and James Collip treated the first diabetic patient with an insulin injection. Insulin was originally collected from the ground-up pancreases of pigs or cattle. In 1978, Arthur Riggs, Keiichi Itakura, and Herbert Boyer inserted the gene carrying the blueprints for human insulin into a bacteria, so the bacteria could make insulin identical to the insulin that humans make. Today, the vast majority of insulin is made by this engineered yeast or bacteria. This has made the insulin supply safer, more consistent, and identical to the insulin humans produce.
We make a food animal product without animals already, too. Rennet is a mixture of enzymes that turns milk into curds and whey in cheesemaking. Traditionally, rennet is extracted from the inner lining of the fourth stomach of calves. On March 24, 1990, the FDA approved a bacteria that had been genetically engineered to produce rennet, making it the first genetically engineered product for food. Today, the majority of cheesemaking uses rennet enzymes from genetically engineered bacteria, fungi, or yeasts. Rennet harvested from cell cultures is purer, more consistent, and less expensive than animal-derived rennet.
These examples go beyond animal products.
A Swiss company called Evolva is making vanillin (the primary component of vanilla flavor) from yeast. The vast majority of vanillin is produced from petrochemicals or chemically derived from lignin (a constituent of most plant cell walls). The small percentage of vanillin from vanilla beans is harvested in tropical forests from the vanilla orchid. A cultured vanillin would avoid rainforest farming and chemical synthesis of vanilla.
Ginkgo Bioworks, a company based in Boston, is using cellular agriculture to produce flower fragrances from engineered microbes rather than from flowers.
How to make cellular products with Cellular Agriculture
Most cellular products exist in tissues. Tissues are made outside the body in a process called tissue engineering. Cells from a particular species and tissue type are assembled on a scaffold (to grow on) with serum (food for the cells to feed on while they grow) in an environment that promotes growth.
Today, tissue engineering is a relatively new scientific pursuit, with a focus on clinical applications such as growing skin for burn victims, or organs for patients requiring organ transplantation. The focus is on the tissue having a biological function — in other words, the tissue engineered organ needs to be able to work in a living person.
While the science behind growing tissue for an organ transplant is similar to growing muscle tissue for food, both come with a set of very different considerations. For example, tissues for meat or leather do not need to work as an organ in someone’s body. Instead, meat needs to have a particular nutritional value, mouthfeel, or taste. Leather needs to have a certain strength, texture, or softness. All cellular agriculture products need to be made affordably — that means producing tissues at a scale much larger than what is required for patients requiring organ transplants.
In our bodies, blood vessels bring nutrients and remove waste products from our tissues. This allows the tissues in our bodies to be quite thick. But if you do not have vessels, the cells do not have access to what they need to grow. In culture, tissues can only grow about 0.5mm thick without vessels. For growing organs for medical purposes, this is a problem. But for growing cultured meat, it may not be.
The benefits of Cellular Agriculture
Compared to their conventional counterparts, cellular agriculture products have fewer environmental impacts, a safer, purer product, and a more consistent supply. This is because the product is being produced in safe, sterile, controlled conditions.
Another exciting aspect of cellular agriculture is the ability to design and tune what you are making. For instance, you could make meat with fewer saturated fats and more unsaturated fats, or you could make leather of different thicknesses. You could make milk without lactose, or eggs without cholesterol.
Despite the benefits and opportunities presented by cellular agriculture, it remains an underfunded area of research.
Visit www.new-harvest.org for more details