The next generation of lab-grown meat

Scientists are using cutting-edge tissue engineering technologies to create the next generation of cultured meat and seafood products that look, feel and taste more like conventional meat.

We are consuming more animal protein than ever before. But traditional meat production by farming animals is environmentally unsustainable – increasing greenhouse gas emissions and putting pressure on resources such as land and water.

Cultured meat - or clean meat - offers a way to reduce the environmental impact and animal welfare concerns raised by intensive farming practices. But while the cultured meat industry is gaining momentum, scaling up the production process and reducing the cost remain key challenges.

The first step involves growing large amounts of animal cells in huge containers called bioreactors. After further processing, this can only make what is essentially a minced meat substance. Although this may lead to cultured meat products such as burgers or nuggets, it’s some way off a steak or chicken breast.

The specific mixture of muscle, fat, blood, and other cell types, as well as its intricate tissue structure, is what gives naturally formed meat its overall flavor, taste, and texture. Scientists are now looking to apply the latest tissue engineering technologies, such as edible scaffolds and 3D bioprinting, to achieve similar complex tissue structures in lab-grown meat.

We recently announced three-year collaborations with teams at Tufts University, Massachusetts, USA, and Technical University (TU) of Darmstadt in Germany, who are carrying out fundamental research into the development of next-generation cultured meat and seafood products.

Building muscle fibers

Led by Professor David Kaplan, a team at the department of Biomedical Engineering at Tufts University is applying textile bioengineering to produce whole muscle meat. They aim to develop a suite of techniques that will enable the large-scale construction of tissue-engineered muscle and fat that will be safe and nutritious for people to eat.

Meat muscle is made up of bundles of long muscle fibers that are bound together with connective tissue. A real piece of meat will contain around 10 to 20% protein and 2 to 22% fat, depending on the type and species [1].

The team is using 3D edible scaffolds that serve as templates to support muscle and fat cells to grow and assemble into long strands resembling muscle fibers. They also plan to design and construct a bioreactor that can produce these cultured meat tissue fibers, laying the foundations for future industrial-scale manufacturing.

Applying industrial printing technologies

A team led by Professor Andreas Blaeser at the BioMedical Printing Lab at the Institute for Printing Science and Technology (IDD) and the Center for Synthetic Biology at TU Darmstadt will develop new 3D bioprinting processes for the large-scale production of textured cultured meat.

3D bioprinting is an emerging technology that offers unprecedented opportunities to mimic the structure of complex biological tissues, such as skeletal muscle. The success of the technique hinges on developing ‘bioink’ formulations - composed of biomaterials combined with living cells and growth factors - that possess the right properties for printing.

Professor Blaeser’s team will investigate an industrial printing process, called screen printing, to enable sheet-to-sheet biofabrication at unmatched production speeds and with ultra-high printing precision. The process involves screens with variable patterns, which are used to apply layers of different bioinks on the printing surface. Each bioink is applied, one at a time, to achieve the final structure.

In this way, a process for large-scale production of multi-layered bioink sheets that can be matured into thick, structured meat slices will be established. To begin with, the researchers will develop a lab-scale printing process and fine-tune their existing bioink portfolio towards the requirements of meat production. They will then transfer the concept to an industrial and fully automated printing machine.

Accelerating progress

Both research groups at Tufts University and TU Darmstadt were the winners of the 2020 Research Grant ‘Bioreactor Designs for Cultured Meat’.

The focus of our interdisciplinary cultured meat team is on developing products and services that will enable a safe, nutritious and scaled production of cultured meat. The joint projects with Tufts University and TU Darmstadt complement the activities of the cultured meat team, which are led by the Silicon Valley Innovation Hub and our Innovation Center, in close collaboration with our Life Science business sector.

“As a leading supplier to the biopharmaceutical industry, we aim to accelerate the emerging cultured meat industry and become a technology enabler, from R&D to the safe and efficient scale-up of production. The conceptual approaches developed by Tufts University and TU Darmstadt are highly innovative. Both fit our strategy perfectly and complement internal efforts in the areas of scaffolds, cell differentiation, bioreactors and bioprocess design,” said Thomas Herget, Head of our Silicon Valley and China Innovation Hub.

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