GFI awards grant for crucial fish cell culture media research

GFI has awarded a two-year grant to a research project aimed at developing a high-quality, serum-free fish cell culture media—a critical step to bring cultivated seafood to market.
School of fish

For cultivated meat to get to market, a lot of pieces have to come together. One of those is the cell culture media, the “nutrient soup” that is used to keep the cells alive and healthy. Today, most cell culture media is expensive and sometimes offers inconsistent results. And for cultivated meat companies working with fish species, very few—if any—species-specific commercial media formulations exist.

Dr. Reza Ovissipour, an assistant professor at Virginia Tech, is embarking on a project to change that by creating an open-source media formulation optimized for growing fish cells. GFI has awarded a two-year grant to Dr. Ovissipour’s lab for a project using Response Surface Methodology (RSM), as well as artificial neural networks, to fine-tune the cell culture media in order for fish cells to not only grow, but thrive. The project team includes graduate students Inayat Batish and Thet Aung and postdoctoral fellow Dr. Lexi Duscher.

Today’s cell culture media is costly and inefficient.

Most academic cell culture research uses fetal bovine serum, or FBS, to keep the cells healthy and happy. However, FBS is animal-derived, expensive, and inconsistent from batch to batch. This makes it a poor choice for producing cultivated meat at scale. Serum-free alternatives have existed for years, but these products can be even more expensive.

For cultivated meat to compete on price with conventional meat, we need alternatives that are even cheaper and more reliable than FBS. Cell culture media is generally considered to be the biggest contributor to the cost of cultivating meat, which is primarily the result of the high cost of serum alternatives like recombinant growth factors. Cells can be cultured without serum, and for many animal cell culture applications in the biopharmaceutical industry this has been done routinely for years. But the field still faces barriers to producing high-quality, serum-free media at a very low cost.

When it comes to media for culturing fish cells, highly-optimized serum-free formulations haven’t yet been reported in the academic literature. A 2017 study was able to achieve serum-free culture of fish cells by adding a growth factor called IGF2, but the cells grew more slowly in the IGF2-containing media than they did in the serum-containing control media. For cultivated meat and seafood to be viable at commercial scale, much more optimization is needed.

Design of Experiments (DOE) approaches can help advance cell culture media research.

A fundamental challenge with optimizing cell culture media is that it may contain dozens of different ingredients. Researchers may not know from the outset which ingredients are important or how much should be added. In many cases, there will be interactions between ingredients. In other words, the best concentration of ingredient A might be different depending on how much of ingredients B, C, and D are also in the mix. Because of the number of ingredients involved, testing every possible combination would be prohibitively expensive and time-consuming.

To maximize efficiency, Dr. Ovissipour’s lab plans to use a Response Surface Methodology (RSM) approach for this optimization project. RSM is a form of Design of Experiments (DOE) methodology that guides researchers to test a few concentrations of several ingredients, rather than testing every possible combination. This method can give researchers a good idea of what the optimal recipe might look like with less time and effort.

“Here at Virginia Tech, we are very excited about this opportunity provided by The Good Food Institute for our program, ‘Sustainable Food Production Systems,’ which will enable us to develop innovative methods for cultivated seafood production. This will foster a new paradigm and seafood supply chain, from Cell to Table instead of Ocean to Table, which can significantly reduce pressure on oceans and address food security and environmental concerns,” said Dr. Ovissipour. “Under this program, we hope that we can develop cost-effective serum-free media through Machine Learning and Al.”

Open-access research will help solve alternative protein’s greatest obstacles.

Alternative proteins have the potential to dramatically transform our global food system for the better. For this to happen, we need many more open-access research projects like this one. This is especially true when it comes to challenges facing the entire industry, of which media optimization is a perfect example.

To help us more effectively address the need for open-access alternative protein research, GFI recently announced two new funding mechanisms in addition to our annual Competitive Research Grant Program. Going forward, scientific research funding through the Sustainable Seafood Initiative will be integrated into our larger research grant program through all three funding mechanisms.

Dr. Ovissipour’s research will be a step towards increased global food security, healthier oceans, and a food system that works better for all of us. According to Dr. Ovissipour, “By 2050, the world’s population will reach 9 billion, and in order to address food security concerns, food production should be doubled. However, current agricultural practices are not sustainable to address this concern. Fisheries and aquaculture are among the more sustainable food production systems; however, due to overfishing, pressure on wild stock, emerging diseases, antibiotic resistant bacteria, marine acidification, bycatch, byproducts, microplastics, and lack of clean water, the seafood industry requires novel and innovative production systems. Thus, developing novel and innovative technologies such as cultivated meat is required.” We at GFI’s Sustainable Seafood Initiative certainly agree, and we can’t wait to see this project unfold!


Claire bomkamp, ph. D.


Claire Bomkamp is focused on cultivated seafood and driving forward GFI’s Sustainable Seafood Initiative. Areas of expertise: the science and technology of cultivated seafood, cultivated seafood startups, research, and university programs, scaffolding, science communication, fish puns.