Photo credit: Bluu Seafood
Not too long ago, cultivated seafood was a little more than an idea
Within the past few years, we’ve seen everything from academics beginning new research projects, to the founding of new companies, to the publication of several key papers describing advances in areas such as cell line development, media, and scaffolding, to delicious-looking new product prototypes.
Even so, the task of culturing fish cells remains challenging. Only a few cell lines are available, media formulations and culture conditions are generally not well optimized, and cells often take too long to grow. Researchers spend more time troubleshooting these issues, which means they have less time to focus on questions like how to build scalable and cost-effective bioprocesses and how culture conditions impact the taste and texture of the final product.
Earlier this year, we invited a group of researchers to discuss these challenges in a virtual workshop. We didn’t just want to talk about how hard growing fish cells can be—we had three specific goals to accomplish:
- Inform and build GFI’s internal strategy for supporting the industry in addressing the challenges
- Facilitate new research collaborations
- Support and inspire people to develop their ideas for implementing solutions to cultivated seafood challenges
In total, 91 academic and industry scientists attended the workshop
You can read more about the workshop outcomes in our report, but here’s a quick summary of the key themes that came out of those discussions:
- Research tools: Access to research tools (e.g., antibodies, annotated genome sequences) is an even bigger constraint than we thought. Addressing this won’t require new technical insights, but will require funding and coordination.
- Interdependent challenges: While the field faces many challenges, these challenges are tightly interrelated. For example, the lack of appropriate cell lines is an obstacle to media development, and the lack of optimized media formulations is a barrier to cell line development.
- Basic biology: Our limited understanding of the basic biology of fish presents challenges to cell line development, media optimization, and efforts focused on transdifferentiation.
- Funding and collaboration: Perhaps unsurprisingly, funding for research—especially broadly-applicable, open-access research—is one of the biggest bottlenecks to success. Participants from both academia and industry expressed a strong desire for more collaboration and information sharing within the field of cultivated fish. This includes setting up the right networking channels that both partners can easily identify to engage with each other, whether through organized events or ad hoc communication.
Collaboration breeds innovation
The workshop generated a huge volume of insights and suggestions, and we have been working since then to turn those insights into action. As part of a post-event survey, we presented workshop attendees with a list of possible activities GFI could focus on and asked them which they would find most impactful.
Here are the top-ranked options based on the percentage of respondents indicating importance, along with some concrete steps we’ve taken since and some things we have coming up:
82% value funding research via a dedicated RFP on cell culture techniques for cultivated seafood
GFI’s 2023 Request for Proposals (RFP) will include four priority topics, one of which is seafood-specific: “Developing tools and knowledge to promote stemness and proliferation in seafood cell cultures.” We used the workshop to get input from the research community before committing to this topic and to refine the scope for maximum impact. The one big change we ended up making as a result of the workshop was to emphasize research tool development. Because this challenge came up independently in almost every breakout room discussion during the workshop, we decided that explicitly including tool development in the scope of the RFP would better address the needs of the cultivated seafood research community.
For this priority area, we’re seeking proposals that are primarily focused on fish or aquatic invertebrates. We’re also accepting proposals in three other priority areas, all of which could help support alternative seafood product development but do not exclusively focus on cultivated seafood:
- Extrusion 2.0: Enhancing traditional extrusion through process innovation and mechanistic evaluations of protein texturization
- Data collection and curation to inform the development of genome-scale metabolic models for optimization of feedstock formulation and feed conversion
- Improving feedstock availability for food fermentation in biomass and precision fermentation platforms
Interested research teams can apply for funding by September 21, 2023 and the maximum that can be requested is $250,000, with an additional $100k available to research teams that include a new academic collaborator or an industry partner. We’ll also be holding an informational webinar on July 18 at 11 am EDT and at 8 pm EDT and two virtual networking and information sessions on July 24 at 11 am EDT and at 9 pm EDT.
76% value advocating for more government funding of cultivated seafood research
A 2021 Global Innovation Needs Assessment report from the ClimateWorks Foundation and the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office found that global public spending on research, development, deployment, and commercialization needs to increase to US $10.1 billion per year if we are to unlock the full benefits of alternative proteins. Right now, we are orders of magnitude below that estimate, with cultivated seafood receiving only a small percentage of public funding for alternative protein research and commercialization.
Therefore, increasing the availability of open-access research funding from governments across the globe continues to be a key priority of GFI’s policy teams. In late 2022, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy put out a Request for Information related to the National Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Initiative. GFI’s response included recommendations of increased public funding for three specific short-term goals, one of which was for alternative protein products to achieve price and taste parity with conventional animal products across the most popular categories of meat and seafood.
We’re seeing government engagement efforts begin to pay off in the form of support for cultivated meat research by several governments worldwide—including the Netherlands, China, South Korea, Singapore, Israel, and the U.S. Earlier this year, we were excited to see the U.S. government champion the need for alternative proteins in their Bold Goals For U.S. Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing report. In Section 2 of the report, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) specifically called out the need for research into “…the structural design and food architecture of alternative protein (e.g., plant-based, fermentation-derived, and cell-cultured) products, including how plant and microbial materials compare to animal-based products.”
Thankfully, it’s not just words in a report, either—the USDA currently has an RFP open that includes a priority area on Novel Foods and Innovative Manufacturing Technologies (priority 3b; see page 46). The RFP defines novel foods as “…those foods or food ingredients that can be newly developed, produced or preserved using new technologies or processes including cell-cultured meat, seafood and animal proteins, plant protein products, edible insect proteins, single-cell proteins, and other novel sources/varieties.” The maximum award amount is $650,000 for standard grants, and applications are due September 28th.
73% value hosting networking sessions to bring together potential collaborators
Connecting researchers with potential collaborators is something we’re always excited to do at GFI! The workshop participants’ feedback that networking sessions are useful, as well as on the specific types of events they would find most valuable, prompted us to put together a few extra events:
- We added 1:1 video networking to the seafood-focused webinars we already had on the calendar. GFI APAC’s webinar with Dr. Shigeki Sugii was followed by a networking session where 45 individual 1:1 introductions were made, and GFI US’s webinar with Dr. Frederico Ferreira was followed by a session where 33 introductions were made. We hope those conversations were fun and useful, and we’ll plan to continue including networking sessions with our seafood-related webinars as long as people keep showing up to them!
- We’re also experimenting with new formats for networking, collaboration, and idea-sharing. As a result of feedback we received during and after the workshop, we recently piloted a new virtual event series we’re calling Fish & CHIPS: Collaborative Huddle for Ideation & Problem Solving. Our goal for these events is for the research community to become more interconnected and for participants to come away with new ideas to try out. Our first event brought together 36 cultivated seafood scientists, who were sorted into breakout rooms to discuss a series of cultivated seafood-related discussion prompts in small groups. Based on participant feedback, we will plan on repeating this event with some minor modifications, with one of the discussion topics next time being related to strategies for balancing intellectual property concerns with the benefits of openly sharing information within the industry. If you’re a scientist working on cultivated seafood—whether in academia or industry—and would like to be part of these conversations, please stay tuned for future installments in this event series!
- You may have already seen the announcement that The Good Food Conference is happening in person (with the option to attend virtually) this year! The workshop attendees and survey respondents were very clear in their enthusiasm for in-person events, so we’re making plans for some seafood-focused networking time at the conference. Stay ‘tuna’d’ for more details!
Finally, the idea came up during the workshop of in-person, hands-on workshops (ideally with a hybrid option) on topics like cell isolation. We don’t have any concrete plans here yet, but this is something we’re thinking about for the future. If any companies or labs with the capacity to host such a workshop are interested in collaborating with GFI to make this happen, we’d love to hear from you!
46% value explaining the state of the science & research needs via blog posts, videos, concept notes, technical deep dives, or review papers
A major part of our work at GFI is keeping up with and communicating the state of alternative protein research and what is needed to drive progress forward. A few recent and upcoming seafood-related highlights include:
- Our Solutions Database lists key science, industry, and policy needs related to alternative proteins, with an emphasis on concrete actions needed to move the industry forward. We have some exciting new seafood-related additions to the database in the works, including:
- Cultivated, fermentation-derived, or hybrid surimi
- Cell line development from food-relevant aquatic species
- Synergistic climate and biodiversity benefits of alternative proteins
- Consumer and sensory research as a guide for alternative fish R&D
- Optimizing fat profiles for nutritional and sensory properties
- We published additions and updates earlier this year to our cultivated meat technical deep dive series, including some related to seafood scaffolding and end products.
- Recently, GFI’s Science & Technology team began recording a “State of the Science” snapshot every four months that captures the latest in alternative protein science, including a segment dedicated to alternative seafood.
We’ll continue publishing scientific explainers in various forms as long as we get the sense that the community finds it ‘kelpful’! We’re always open to feedback and ideas here: Love video content? Prefer text-based content? Want more science explainers geared toward beginners? Toward experts? Is there a particular topic you’re curious about? Let us know!
Charting a course for the future of cultivated seafood
It’s no secret that cultivating seafood from cells at the scales needed to have a real impact is a big challenge. However, it’s clear to us at GFI that the community that has sprung up around this idea is up to that challenge!
This is a global group of collaborative, compassionate, smart, curious, and motivated people who approach big problems by looking for creative solutions. We don’t know yet what all those solutions will be, but we’re figuring it out together.
We’re optimistic about our ability to work together to reach the future we want—where we can ensure everyone has access to fresh, healthy, and tasty seafood without compromising the biodiversity of our oceans.