For ChBE senior and researcher Allison McKay, it all started with a burger.
Specifically a cell-cultured burger created in Professor Mark Post’s lab at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. His research helped Allison see the potential to create edible animal products without raising and slaughtering livestock, opening her up to the world of cellular agriculture with all its benefits and exciting challenges.
“Cellular agriculture has the potential to solve the most prominent environmental, ethical and health issues caused by livestock animal agriculture,” McKay said.
McKay founded the Alternative Protein Project of Boulder—formerly the CU Cellular Agriculture Club—to connect with students and industry engineers interested in cellular agriculture research and innovation. The group is also focused on food production research related to fermentation and plant-based protein to create a more sustainable, health-focused and ethical food supply chain.
“I found cell agriculture to be the best way that I can apply my technical education background to something that will have a positive impact on the planet and its inhabitants,” she said. “However, cellular agriculture is still an idea that people are getting used to—or may not have learned about at all.”
She said cultured meat production uses a fraction of the land and water and emits much less pollution compared to the animal-based method of meat production.
“Cultured meat also has the potential to be healthier than traditionally produced meat. Animal slaughter can be messy, and luckily, cultured meat is slaughter-free! This reduces the concern of contamination,” she added. “Cultured meat can potentially be fortified or enriched with nutrients via genome editing or by creating a nutritious scaffold for cell growth.”
Technical—and cultural—challenges ahead
There are a variety of obstacles that cultured meat research must overcome if it is to become mainstream. Not all of these problems are restricted to technical problems to solve in the lab.
The primary challenge is facilitating cell growth at industrial levels. Scaffolding is a technique that gives lab-grown meat products greater volume, rather than growing cells in a solution.
“No one wants to drink meat,” McKay pointed out.
Current production methods involve fetal bovine serum, which is harvested from cows. But McKay envisions an animal-free media to encourage cellular growth. Ideally, cultured meat products would have intramuscular fat cells just as butchered meat cuts do.
“We want to be able to have some of our stem cells differentiate into fat cells, while most of the cells differentiate into muscle cells,” McKay said. “Then we need our cells to organize into structures that mimic muscle tissue. This is a complex challenge.”
Of course, the technical hurdles are just the beginning.
“We want to demystify cultured meat and be open with the public about the process so that gaps in information are not filled with negative assumptions, resulting in a bad rap for cell agriculture as a whole,” she said. “Ultimately, transparency and education are important in creating a positive public perception of cellular agriculture.”
Freedom to innovate in a multi-disciplinary effort
Based on existing medical technology used to grow organs and tissue for transplants, culturing animal muscle cells for consumption presents researchers with a great degree of freedom.
“We can create meat by culturing many different muscle cell types,” McKay said. “This allows for the freedom of considering new types of meat by culturing insect cells or a combination of different cell types.”
This potential is attracting more CU Boulder students from science and engineering majors, but there are important roles to play for those working in other disciplines.
“Students with technical backgrounds in engineering or biology are drawn to our club because they want to learn more about process design or tissue engineering,” McKay said. “The potential benefits of cellular agriculture are inspiring for many students, as most care about the environment, their health or the wellbeing of animals, if not all three.
"While scientists and engineers work on tackling the technical challenges of creating the meat, more business-oriented students are needed, as this developing industry is full of startups and new businesses. Students in communications, journalism or marketing may be interested in studying the consumer acceptance side of things, too.”
Coming to a grocery store near you
While many traditional meat companies have their own niche—whether in producing pork, chicken, beef, and so forth—none have yet brought cellular agriculture-developed products to store shelves.
“Once cultured meat makes it to the market, it will likely change the future of meat forever,” McKay said. “Large animal-based meat production companies such as Tyson are beginning to invest in this cell culture meat production approach.”
While the group was holding regular meetings this semester, the move to remote learning and social distancing this semester has changed their plans.
“Since the apocalypse has thrown a wrench in many of our plans for the remainder of the semester—guest speakers, general body meetings, meetings with faculty—we are directing our focus towards building a group of dedicated organization leaders, planning next year's meetings and events, and creating a framework for research grants and, potentially, even a course at CU relating to alternative protein-cellular agriculture,” she said.
The irony is, of course, that animal agriculture often contributes to pandemics.
“A virus can mutate, adapt, and jump from an animal host—livestock—to a human host. The swine flu and avian flu, for example. The overcrowded livestock pens make a perfect breeding ground for these diseases. The slaughter process only increases the likelihood of this animal-to-human host transfer occurring. Cellular agriculture might one day help prevent pandemics like COVID-19.”