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Monday, March 21st, 2022

Building a kinder future with cellular agriculture

In January 2022, the pioneering cultured-meat company Mosa Meat published a peer-reviewed paper revealing how it achieves muscle differentiation in cultured meat without the use of fetal bovine serum (FBS). Tobias Messmer,  Ph.D. student and Junior Scientist at Dutch cultured-meat company Mosa Meat, talks to ProVeg about the importance of an animal-free culturing medium and open-access research in terms of advancing the cellular-agriculture sector.

What is FBS?

In order to multiply and differentiate as they would inside of an animal, cells in the cellular agriculture process are grown in a nutrient-rich medium containing the same amino acids, proteins, sugars, vitamins, and growth factors that are found in the animal’s blood. In cellular agriculture’s initial stages, researchers used fetal bovine serum – which is a standard ingredient in the growth medium used for medical tissue engineering. Despite offering beneficial conditions as a growth medium supplement, FBS has serious ethical and economic downsides: it requires blood from animals, and is excessively expensive, making large-scale production at a reasonable price impossible. 

ProVeg: Can you briefly explain the process you researched?

Tobias: We are using stem cells derived from the muscle of cows. These muscle stem cells differentiate or turn into mature muscle fibres in the cow’s body when triggered by natural processes such as exercise. To recreate this process outside of the cow, you need a trigger that switches the muscle stem cells to turn into muscle fibres. 

Traditionally, this trigger has been a change in the composition of the cell feed (or cell-culture media). This occurs through a process referred to as serum-starvation: high concentrations of fetal bovine serum are abruptly reduced to lower concentrations. However, we wanted to develop cell feed that does not contain FBS (or any other animal component) for ethical reasons, and to be able to scale up our processes. Therefore, we set out to understand what happens to the cells during serum-starvation. We used a technique called ‘RNA sequencing’ for this, which allowed us to gain deep insights into the cell biology during this process – and we used this knowledge to stimulate muscle differentiation in a fully FBS-free environment.

The process of cultured meat production. From biopsy to stem cells to cultivation in nutrient-rich environment to meat

ProVeg: Is the process that you developed ready for commercialisation and scaling? 

Tobias: We are working on multiple fronts in parallel to scale up our production capabilities in order to make our cultured meat accessible as early as possible: developing cell feed that is free of animal animal-derived components but instead sources sustainable and cost-effective nutrients, optimising the growth and differentiation of both our muscle and fat cells, scaling up our production in the bioreactors where we cultivate cells, and many more. These efforts are essential to not only make the best possible meat product but to also roll it out to the public as soon as we can. The timelines are not determined only by our own progress but also by external factors outside our control, such as our ongoing European regulatory approval, which is required in order to be allowed to sell cultured meat. This process will take at least a year and a half, but could take longer.

“We have the chance to build a kinder future”

ProVeg: How do you envision collaboration within the sector?

Tobias: The field of cellular agriculture is still very young, and many challenges have to be overcome in order to reach scale and accessible cost levels. This necessarily requires an extent and level of science that – in my personal opinion – cannot be achieved by only a few people collaborating behind closed doors. We have the chance to build a kinder future, not only by changing the way we produce meat, but also by the way we do business. The closer we all work together and use our bundled efforts and brainpower, the better we can make this technology and the quicker we can realise it. Open-source science has always proven to be a powerful catalyst for innovation, so having more public cellular-agriculture research available will ultimately benefit everyone.

ProVeg: Most research on cellular agriculture currently happens within the private sector. What is your take on this?

Tobias: The field of cellular agriculture has moved more quickly from the academic environment to the private sector than most other technologies in the biotech and biomedical fields. This swift transition can be explained by its vast potential to reshape the entire protein industry – which investors have also recognised. This drastically accelerates R&D capabilities to advance this technology but also helps shape the legislation and regulations around cultured meat to become more innovation-friendly while maintaining a high level of consumer safety.

However, moving away from the public space also brings with it relevant limitations. It drives inefficiency since probably a lot of the problems we are working on here at Mosa Meat are also being addressed by researchers in other cultured-meat companies, who might run into problems which could be avoided by sharing data. This is a major reason that we are sharing our processes with the public in these scientific publications. Another essential prerequisite for any food technology to succeed is to gain the trust of the consumers, which can only happen through transparency and sincere communication. 

Subsidies from the government to create supportive infrastructure are very important for cellular agriculture to succeed. These can be at a country or region-level; we have seen signs from governments in EU countries, as well as globally, that this technology is part of their country’s long-term vision in terms of food and agricultural planning.

Tobias Messmer

About Tobias Messmer: In 2013, Tobias started his studies in molecular biotechnology at Heidelberg University, with the aim of leaving a positive impact on the world through his work. He was convinced that medical research was the most direct way to achieve this. However, during his Master’s programme, he had the fortunate opportunity to do internships all over the world and, after seeing so many beautiful places on this planet, he realised that he wanted to contribute to preserving it for future generations. 

Around this time, he remembered that when starting his studies, he had read about a Dutch professor named Mark Post who had created meat without the need for any animal to be slaughtered, potentially solving many of the meat industry’s problematic environmental and ethical implications. Messmer reached out to Post, who was at that time still leading his research group in the Physiology department of Maastricht University. He then joined Post’s research group for an internship in 2018 and joined Mosa Meat after graduating.

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Building a kinder future with cellular agriculture

In January 2022, Mosa Meat published a peer-reviewed paper revealing how it achieves muscle differentiation without fetal bovine serum (FBS).