A pair of Rutgers researchers are teaming up to combat climate change and worldwide hunger at the same time. Yong Mao, associate research professor and lead biologist in the Laboratory for Biomaterials Science at Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences, and Joseph Freeman, professor, director of the Musculoskeletal Regeneration Laboratory, and graduate program director of biomedical engineering in Rutgers School of Engineering, will collaborate with Atelier Meats, a biotechnology company, to develop and produce lab-grown, structured meats.
Mao and Freeman will assist in the development of Atelier's proprietary technology to develop a process to produce lab-grown/cultivated meats.
Cultivated or cultured meats are real animal products that are created in labs and/or commercial production facilities to have the texture of real meat. According to the Good Food Institute, "Cultivated meat will use significantly less land and water, emit fewer greenhouse gases, and reduce agriculture-related pollution and eutrophication."
Neither Mao nor Freeman had worked on cultivated meats before coming together with Atelier. "I won't say that we were looking to necessarily get into the area on our own, but I have colleagues that are in the industry and they are always talking about how interesting it is," said Freeman.
"I was aware of cultivated meat," agreed Mao, "but this type of work is very expensive and needs lots of resources. However, this is a really exciting project and we could potentially learn many things and solve many problems."
Yong Mao, associate research professor and lead biologist, Laboratory for Biomaterials Science, Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences
Both researchers were excited to bring their respective talents and research to the project. Mao works on combining the extracellular matrix – a network of macromolecules and minerals such as collagen, enzymes, glycoproteins and hydroxyapatite that provide support to surrounding cells – with synthetic materials. "My research includes all sorts of cells, for example primary cells from human to animal, as well as stem cells," said Mao. "We do a lot of research using the cell as our platform. My focus for this cultivated meat project is putting the cells and the scaffolding supporting material together in a meaningful way to create textured meat."
Freeman's research, meanwhile, focuses on the regeneration of skeletal muscle; finding ways to regenerate tissues or heal them through different therapeutic methods after damage has been done. "Our part of this project is mainly to find the right culture techniques, the right materials upon which to put the cells, so that in the end we get a textured meat that has the look and the mouthfeel of a real steak or real textured meat."
Rutgers Innovation Ventures, within the university's Office for Research, was key in putting the multi-disciplinary, collaborative research arrangement together. "Innovation Ventures was very supportive," said Mao. "They really made negotiations for this project a priority and I'm very thankful." Freeman added, "Innovation Ventures was able to make this agreement work with terms where everyone could get something that they needed so that we could start this as soon as possible."
Mao and Freeman understand that their work may not only help the environment and decrease poverty, but also impact their individual research aspirations.
"The same process that will be used to create a thick piece of textured meat can be used to make a big piece of bone or a skeletal muscle that will be implanted later," said Freeman. "Many of the techniques that we will develop with growing meat in a lab will help us as we are trying to grow other tissues or scaffolds that will eventually grow a tissue once it's implanted."
Mao concurred. "One of my focuses is cell-based therapy. The challenges for this kind of work are how to develop a good source of cells that can keep culturing for a long time and reduce the cost of doing the cell culture. Right now, it's very expensive to do," she said. "It will take a lot of research to get there, so this is only the beginning."
The process of creating textured meat will be fully collaborative, with both Mao and Freeman working separately and together, sharing findings between themselves and Atelier, and even seeing some of their team members work in the other's lab. While Mao works on cells and the extracellular matrix, Freeman will focus on what materials will be best to carry the cells. Between the two researchers, they will determine how best to grow the cells together into muscle that can eventually become meat.
Their goal for the project is to be able to create "something of real size, real thickness, that has multiple tissues from multiple cell types and has a marbled look, with the mouthfeel that is similar to actual steak, and to be able to develop a cell culture technique that can deliver that product repeatedly," said Freeman.
"Importantly, it's not just putting the cells together; they should mimic the muscle fibers that you see in a steak," said Mao. "Our goal is to produce marbled meat using bovine muscle and fat cells and a creation process that Joseph will have developed."
The big question when it comes to developing cultivated meat: how? Currently, multiple companies create "burgers" and other "meats" using plants, but their process is nothing like what Freeman and Mao are attempting to create.
"What they (veggie burgers) do is a mixture or composite of different materials, using already-existing products for the mouthfeel and various spices for the taste," said Freeman. "Our process is similar to the way a muscle normally grows – a cohesion of cells that grow together and are fused together to make a solid piece of meat."
"We know the cattle-based meat industry has drawbacks because of environmental concerns and animal welfare and also even some nutritional concerns," added Mao. "To have a new alternative that addresses all of those concerns, and the end result is even better, absolutely is something we need to do."
The meat industry has grown considerably over the last 20+ years, hitting 324 million metric tons in 2020 according to Statista. It is expected to garner over $400,000 million between 2021-2028. However, there are concerns with the industry's impact on the environment, as explained by National Geographic:
- Agriculture emits more greenhouse gases than all vehicles combined, primarily from "methane released by cattle and rice farms, nitrous oxide from fertilize fields, and carbon dioxide from the cutting of rain forests to grow crops or raise livestock."
- The meat production industry not only consumes vast amounts of water; it also pollutes water with fertilizers and manure.
- Finally, should the amount of consumed meat continue to grow, the world's population could become too big to feed itself by 2050 when it reaches 10 billion.
One potential issue is the misinformation that surrounds lab-based products. But Freeman and Mao insist what they are working to create will be healthier than the current industry options. "Another advantage that cultivated meat has over cattle meat is less possibility of contamination from other things," said Mao.
According to the National Humane Education Society, factory-farmed cattle eat mainly corn, but often suffer from health problems due to "overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, and substandard feed." The overcrowding could lead to "bacterial infection, so injectable antibiotics and hormones are used to keep [the cows] healthy and get them to slaughter weight."
"You read stories about the risk of mad cow disease, in large part because of the conditions the animals are living in," said Freeman. "But in a lab, everything is sterile, everything is sprayed down and hit with UV light, plus antibiotics if necessary to maintain pristine conditions for anything to grow. Anything made in a lab is probably going to be the cleanest, safest stuff you're ever going to eat."
The project is in its early stages, and the idea of meat grown in a lab may sound like something from Hollywood, but both Mao and Freeman feel the process is closer than some may believe.
"Some may say this idea is too futuristic, and they may doubt we can accomplish our goals, but that is part of what inspires me to do the work," said Mao.
"In my lifetime, we've gone from talking to each other with devices plugged into walls to calling relatives around the world on our watches," said Freeman. "So just because you don't see it today, doesn't mean in 5-10 years it won't be on store shelves. We believe lab-grown meat is not as far away as you think."
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