Researchers at the Tufts University Center for Cellular Agriculture (TUCCA) have created bovine muscle cells that produce their own growth factors, a step that can significantly cut costs of the production of cell-based beef.
In a study published in the journal Cell Reports Sustainability, researchers successfully modified bovine muscle cells to produce fibroblast growth factors (FGF). Muscle cells are the primary type found in products like steaks and hamburgers – FGF plays a crucial role in the development and differentiation of these cells.
Prior to this breakthrough, the external addition of growth factors was necessary, which significantly drives up production costs.
Andrew Stout, director of science at the Tufts Cellular Agriculture Commercialisation Lab (CACL) and lead researcher on the project, said: “FGF is not exactly a nutrient. It’s more like an instruction for the cells to behave in a certain way. What we did was engineer bovine muscle stem cells to produce these growth factors and turn on the signalling pathways themselves.”
Stout is leading several research projects at the CACL, a technology incubator space set up to take TUCCA innovations and develop them to the point at which they can be applied at an industrial scale in a commercial setting.
“While we significantly cut the cost of media, there is still some optimisation that needs to be done to make it industry-ready,” said Stout. “We did see slower growth with the engineered cells, but I think we can overcome that.”
Such strategies could include changing the level and timing of expression of FGF in the cell or altering other cell growth pathways. Stout explained: “In this strategy, we’re not adding foreign genes to the cell, just editing and expressing genes that are already there,” to see if they can improve the growth of the muscle cells for meat production.
Stout said that this approach could lead to simpler regulatory approval of the ultimate food product as regulation is more stringent for the addition of foreign genes rather than the editing of native genes. He says the strategy could be transferrable to different proteins such as fish and chicken as “all muscle cells and many other cell types typically rely on FGF to grow”.
David Kaplan, who leads TUCCA, commented: “Work is continuing at TUCCA and elsewhere to improve cultivated meat technology including exploring ways to reduce the cost of nutrients in the growth media, and improving the texture, taste and nutritional content of the meat. Products have already been awarded regulatory approval for consumption in the US and globally, although costs and availability remain limiting.”
“I think advances like this will bring us much closer to seeing affordable cultivated meat in our local supermarkets within the next few years.”