Future Food Tech: Discussing Cell Culture Media for Cultured Meat

Publish Date

16 MAR 2021


A critical success factor for the rapidly evolving cultured meat industry is the ability to achieve price parity with conventional meat. At Future Food Tech, we discussed one of the major cost drivers for cultured meat: Suitable and high-performing cell culture media. Learn more!

Cultured meat begins as stem cells extracted from an animal and grown in bioreactors in specialized liquid solutions called media. Media formulations are designed to promote proliferation of cells into massive quantities and typically include sugars, salts, vitamins, amino acids, lipids, antioxidants and other nutrient factors, and may contain upwards of 100 individual components. Given the massive quantities of cells that must be grown to meet anticipated demand for cultured meat, the cost of the media must be reduced substantially to achieve price parity with meat produced via conventional means.

The good news: The industry is working on solutions already and is making steady progress in many areas, including eliminating costly components and exploration of strategies to produce other essential factors using more cost-effective means. As a technology enabler for cultured meat companies, this topic is also high on our innovation agenda. A dedicated team at the Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany Innovation Center and Silicon Valley Innovation Hub is working on designing and commercializing animal-origin free media formulations to enable the efficient production of various cultured seafood, avian and mammalian species. At the Future Food Tech Conference, an international summit for food business leaders, VC investors and food-tech innovators, Timothy Olsen, our Head of Clean Meat Commercial, discussed the status of cell culture media for cultured meat with participants during an inspiring panel discussion. Let’s hear about the key take-aways from Timothy Olsen and his colleague Aletta Schnitzler, Head of Clean Meat R&D!

Eliminating Use of Fetal Bovine Serum

Many essential components found in media formulations derive from fetal bovine serum (FBS), which is added as a supplement. FBS is the liquid fraction which remains after the blood drawn from a bovine fetus coagulates. Though it is rich in components conducive to cell growth, FBS cannot be used in the production of commercial cultured meat products. “Not only would it be undesirable from an animal welfare perspective, it is also ill-defined, has high batch-to-batch variability and is very expensive – costing upwards of thousands of dollars per liter, depending on the grade, source and supply”, explains Aletta Schnitzler. “Considering that billions of liters of media, and hence massive quantities of FBS, would be needed to meet anticipated demand for cultured meat, its use is a non-starter for commercial success”, adds Timothy Olsen.

In other industries, the strategy for eliminating FBS has been to parse out its essential components and create formulations combining these individual components with other essential nutrients and factors to create an optimized mix, capable of supporting robust growth of cells. Tremendous progress is being made in creating serum-free media formulations for cultured meat and this represents a major step forward for the industry. “The next crucial steps are to define what will take the place of serum and how costs of those individual components can be minimized without impacting media performance,” says Aletta Schnitzer.  

Driving Down the Cost of Growth Factors

Although it is an important first step, eliminating FBS doesn’t completely solve the cost challenge.
The collective cost of eight key media components is currently estimated to be about $376 per liter, which translates to more than $7,500,000 as the starting point for a 20,000 liter bioreactor. Just how far does the cost of media need to be driven down? “We estimate that the cultured meat industry will require serum-free media formulations at price points below $5.00 per liter to become economically feasible at industrial scales,” states Timothy Olsen.

A top-down approach can be employed in which existing media formulations serve as the starting point from which components can be added or removed; a bottom-up approach starts from a clean slate and builds the formulation one component at a time. A key benefit of a bottom-up approach is that it encourages outside-the-box thinking and consideration of raw materials that are not used in biopharmaceutical applications. During a networking discussion at Future Food Tech, hosted by Timothy Olsen, attendees were quite excited about the use of materials such as hydrolysates and extracts that can provide significant nutrient profiles to reduce or even eliminate reliance on additional raw materials typically added in traditional media formulations. Hydrolysates and extracts can be economically produced on a large scale and are free of animal ingredients. Whichever strategy is applied, high throughput systems, liquid handlers and advanced statistical approaches developed for biopharmaceutical applications are available to determine the impact of each component on cell growth and viability. In addition, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and computer modeling are accelerating the process of screening hundreds of components and designing experiments to predict what the cells need, how they respond in different culture conditions and ultimately define the best media formulations.

In parallel with selecting media components that can compensate for removal of FBS, the industry is also pursuing approaches to reduce the cost of the individual components that are necessary to promote robust cell growth in serum-free conditions. The networking roundtable at Future Food Tech discussed three options that are being actively explored by the industry – and by Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany –  to reduce the cost contribution of factors added to cell culture media:  1) obviate the need for them, 2) use less of them or 3) create a process that can produce the factors at a significantly reduced cost.  

Steady Forward Progress

Being at the early stages of media formulation for production of cultured meat, many cycles of innovation and plenty of ingenuity will be needed to achieve significant, breakthrough reductions in cost. Manufacturing with economies of scale and leveraging sourcing expertise for raw materials will also add cost reductions. “Fortunately, initiatives for creating safe, high performance and cost-effective serum-free formulations are well underway. We are excited to contribute to industry advancements through our innovation projects and initiatives, driven by a dedicated, creative, multidisciplinary team of scientists, innovators, business experts and virtual experimentation specialists”, says Timothy Olsen.

Get more facts about our cell culture media project for cultured meat here. Still curious? Another topic, that our team presented at the Future Food Tech conference, was the tremendous potential of technologies like computational modeling, analytics and automation in overcoming scaling challenges for alternative protein products. Check out this podcast and listen to Dario Kolenko, our Head of New Business Development & Partnership Alliance, and Simon Kahan from Cultivated Meat Modeling Consortium, discussing how virtual experimentation can accelerate the cultured meat field.