The field of cellular agriculture, which involves producing meat from cells grown in bioreactors rather than from livestock, has seen significant technological advancements. One such breakthrough has been made at the Tufts University Center for Cellular Agriculture (TUCCA) under the leadership of David Kaplan, Stern Family Professor of Engineering, where researchers have developed bovine muscle cells that produce their own growth factors, thereby significantly reducing production costs.
Published in the journal Cell Reports Sustainability, the study describes how researchers modified stem cells to produce their own fibroblast growth factor (FGF), which triggers the growth of skeletal muscle cells similar to those found in steak or hamburger.
„FGF is not a nutrient; it’s more of an instruction to the cells to behave in a certain way. We have manipulated bovine muscle stem cells to produce these growth factors and activate the signaling pathways themselves.“ – Andrew Stout, former lead researcher of the project and now Scientific Director at the Tufts Cellular Agriculture Commercialization Lab.
Previously, growth factors had to be added to the surrounding fluid or medium in which the cells were cultured. These growth factors are typically derived from recombinant proteins and sold by industrial suppliers, accounting for a large proportion of cultured meat production costs (up to 90% or more). By eliminating the need for this ingredient in the growth medium, substantial cost savings are achieved.
While the study has significantly reduced the cost of media, further optimizations are required to make them suitable for industrial use. One potential strategy involves modifying the extent and timing of FGF expression in the cells or altering other cell growth pathways. This approach could also lead to a simpler regulatory approval process for the ultimate food product, as regulations for adding foreign genes are stricter than for editing native genes.
The researchers believe that the strategy could also work for other types of meat such as chicken, pork, or fish, as muscle cells and many other cell types typically rely on FGF to grow. Ongoing work is focused on improving the technology for cultured meat, including reducing nutrient costs in growth media and enhancing the texture, taste, and nutritional content of the meat.
Stout, AJ, et al. (2024). Targeted Autocrine Signaling Eliminates FGF2 Requirement of Muscle Cells for Cultivated Meat Production. Cell Reports Sustainability. doi.org/10.1016/j.crsus.2023.100009.