It famously cost $325,000 to produce the first cell-based meat burger. Now Mosa Meat, the company co-founded by the scientist behind that first burger, calculates that the cost of producing a cell-based burger at scale would be about $10.
It’s a massive improvement. But it’s still not at cost parity with conventional meat. Bringing cell-based meat even further down the cost curve is a significant challenge across the industry, a challenge GFI is keen to help address.
At the University of Toronto in Canada, GFI research grant recipient Dr. Peter Stogios is exploring how to make growth factors—key proteins for producing cell-based meat—at a fraction of the cost. By focusing on these proteins, Dr. Stogios aims to make all cell-based meat production less expensive.
We had the chance to talk to him about cell-based meat in Canada, growth factors from extinct animals, and more. Check it out.
What sparked your interest to research cell-based meat?
A few things… one, sustainability is a passion of mine and I appreciate contributing to a new industry. Secondly, I saw an opportunity to translate our lab’s expertise in protein biochemistry and engineering to exciting research. Third, I have been curious about cell-based meat for a few years now, so I am happy to play a small part!
How can cell-based meat improve the welfare of Canadians?
Canada has one of the most carbon-intensive economies in the world and one of the largest carbon footprints per capita. We certainly love our meat, but it is important that Canada does its part to reduce carbon intensity. Developing the cell-based meat industry in our country is a fantastic opportunity to accomplish just that!
What is the role of growth factors in cell-based meat production?
Growth factors are essential components for culturing cells as they provide important signals for their growth state, structural properties, and inter-cell communication. Growth factors are found in all cell media (the broth in which cells are grown) but are the most expensive components. By researching new and improved growth factors, we may be able to reduce the cost of media, and therefore reduce the cost of cell culture for cell-based meat production.
What is the current price range for serum-free media? How much do you aim to reduce this cost through alternative growth factors?
Serum-free growth media costs about $400 per litre. To culture enough cells for cell-based meat involves thousands of dollars just in media costs alone. Growth factors in serum-free media comprise the vast majority of the cost, around 99%. A growth factor that is 10-fold more potent would reduce the overall media cost by 10 times. We aim to achieve this increase through screening for novel growth factors and/or protein engineering. It would mean huge cost savings for cell-based meat producers.
What is protease sensitivity? How does it affect growth media?
Proteases are proteins produced by cells that chew up other proteins. They serve specific functions that the cell needs. Of course, we don’t want them to degrade our growth factors that we will be adding. In our lab, we have a collection of typical proteases that we will test against our exotic growth factors.
How does thermostability guide the design of growth factors?
Thermostability is just one parameter that affects the function of growth factors. Proteins (including growth factors) that are more thermostable mean they have more stability and strength. We will test the thermostability of our growth factors to ensure they can withstand the temperatures required for cell culture.
What makes amphibians, birds, and exotic mammals appealing to your research? What unique traits in species relate to growth factors?
Currently, most growth factors in use come from the genomes of human or cow. We’re sourcing our growth factors from the genomes of many other species. We weren’t biased in any way from the start — we searched public genome databases and let the sequence similarity guide our choice. It led us to some interesting species like elephants, bats, lizards and salmon. Since the biology of these species differs dramatically, perhaps the properties of their growth factors differ as well. It could be more potent than the human and cow versions. But we have no idea. We will see!
How is it possible to create a growth factor from an extinct animal?
This is where genome sequencing by the worldwide scientific community plays a key role. Hundreds of genome sequences are freely available online, even extinct species like dinosaurs. In that case, someone isolated the DNA from a fossil. We found the growth factor sequences in these online databases. Then, we purchased the genes from a vendor that synthesized the DNA. We are using this DNA to coax bacteria to produce the growth factors and we will purify them out.
Want to discover more about our Competitive Research Grant Program? Check out all fourteen projects here! GFI senior scientist Erin Rees Clayton introduces plant-based and cell-based meat projects in the context of industry challenges.