- Silicon Valley startups backed by celebrities like Bill Gates are experimenting with the gene-editing technology Crispr to make lab-grown chicken, pork, and beef.
- Lab-grown meat, also called cultured or clean meat, is real meat brewed up using animal cells. So far, only prototypes exist.
- The idea is to move away from environmentally-damaging meat production methods in favor of a method that could be more sustainable and less ethically fraught.
- Venture capitalists see huge promise in the industry's potential to disrupt the $200 billion global meat industry.
Two emerging technologies with blockbuster biotech potential are the gene-editing tool Crispr and lab-grown or cultured meat.
Crispr has been likened to a pair of genetic scissors: it allows researchers to simply and precisely tweak the DNA of any organism, opening up the potential to cure tricky genetic diseases like sickle cell or even make climate-change-resistant crops.
Lab-grown meat, on the other hand, would free up meat producers from being dependent on farms by allowing for real chicken and beef to be made in a lab from animal cells instead of from slaughter.
What if scientists combined them?
New Age Meats, a startup that recently hosted a public tasting of its prototype sausage, is experimenting with using the technique, along with Memphis Meats, a Silicon Valley startup whose funders include celebrities like Bill Gates and Richard Branson as well as food giants like Tyson.
"Technologies like Crispr allow us to safely increase the quality of our cell growth, which means we will make meat that is tastier, healthier, and more sustainable than slaughtered meat," Brian Spears, the co-founder and CEO of New Age Meats, told Business Insider.
Memphis Meats declined a Business Insider request for an interview. But in pair of patents — the most recent of which was first published at the end of January — Memphis Meats described a method to create real chicken and beef tissue using Crispr.
In an emailed statement, a company spokesperson said, "As a company focused on research and development, we are exploring a number of innovative techniques that will allow us to make our products better for the environment and public health, as well as more affordable and scale-able."
The spokesperson added that it's too early to say whether products made using the gene-editing tool would make it into its first consumer products, which the company previously estimated would hit stores by 2021 and be available in a high-end restaurant this year.
Lab-made meat has the potential to upend a $200 billion industry, but faces some challenges
Real beef or chicken sourced from animal cells instead of farms has yet to grace a restaurant plate.
But that doesn't mean it's not coming.
Lab-grown meat— often called clean, cultured, or cell-based meat — has attracted the attention of an increasing number of startups in recent years. Most of them are in Silicon Valley, but others are popping up in Israel, Japan, and Europe. The technique relies on extracting a sample of muscle and fat cells from an animal, then brewing them up in vats until there's enough tissue for a slab of edible flesh.
Meat is in high demand, accounting for as many as 30% of the calories humans eat around the world according to data from research firm CB Insights. But there's a growing awareness of meat's negative environmental impacts, from the land and water it requires to the ethical issues surrounding factory farming.
In the Bay Area, the startup that appears to be leading the clean-meat pack is Memphis Meats. Founded in 2015 by cardiologist Uma Valeti and stem cell biologist (and self-professed meat lover) Nicholas Genovese, the company became the first to debut lab-made meatballs to a small group of taste-testers in 2016. Memphis followed up a year later with the first cell-based chicken and duck, served at a tasting with chef Derek Sarno in 2017.
Then last year, the company got an infusion of cash from burger and chicken-nugget maker Tyson Foods. Many interpreted the move as a sign of clean meat's potential to upend even the traditional meat industry.
But there's still a ways to go before most of us are eating clean meat.
Cost is the paramount obstacle, and scale is another issue.
Memphis Meats' first prototypes cost $18,000 a pound, according to CB Insights— putting the pricetag of a clean quarter-pounder at roughly the same cost as monthly rent for an average 2-bedroom apartment in San Francisco. Within two years, however, the company said it had reduced the cost to $2,400 per pound.
Similarly, New Age Meats told Business Insider that their first prototypes cost $2,500 per sausage link but said it had recently lowered that cost to $250 per link.
Another problem that many clean meat startups have encountered is that cells from chickens and cows don't like to continually reproduce on their own. At first, they happily replicate. But over time, they slow down and then stop.
In an attempt to overcome that, most companies have been feeding their cells a nutrient-dense mixture called fetal bovine serum, or FBS. Although standard and relatively cheap, FBS has one small problem: it's made from the blood of pregnant slaughtered cows. If startups aim to live up to their goal of replacing animal slaughter, they'll need to find another way to keep their cells happy.
Crispr might help.
Crispr could help lab-grown meat become a reality
Crispr could be a helpful tool for researchers as they strive to bring lab-made meat closer to consumers' plates.
While traditional breeding methods hack away at an organism's genome with a dull blade, tools like Crispr can slice and reshape with scalpel-like precision.
The tool is cheap and relatively easy to use, already allowing scientists to explore recipes for cancer-fighting broccoli, potatoes that don't succumb to disease, and cocoa plants that will survive climate change. Mushrooms and corn made using Crispr already exist, though they have not yet been brought to market.
One of the tool's advantages is that as opposed to traditional methods of genetic modification, which can be somewhat haphazard, Crispr allows for precise genetic edits, like clipping out a gene that controls browning and replacing it with one that extends the shelf-life of an apple or tomato.
Both Memphis Meats and New Age Meats are exploring Crispr's potential to encourage animal cells to keep regenerating — resulting in more animal tissue and ultimately, more edible meat. The technique could potentially allow Memphis Meats' cells to replicate "indefinitely," the company's patent reads. Memphis Meats is exploring using Crispr in cow cells and cells from the progenitor of the domestic chicken, a species known as the red jungle-fowl or Gallus gallus.
"One application is to manufacture skeletal muscle for dietary consumption using cells from the poultry species Gallus gallus; another is from the livestock species Bos taurus," Memphis Meats' patent reads.
Several bespoke food and agricultural organizations are interested in resurrecting ancient animal species like the red junglefowl, which have been largely ignored as farming has become increasingly industrialized. Organizations like the nonprofit Livestock Conservancy, for example, note that many breeds related to the red jungle-fowl offer unique genetic traits important to protecting overall animal diversity. Their meat may also offer slightly unique flavors or textures for cooking and eating.
The CEO of Israel-based clean meat startup Aleph Farms told Business Insider that his company had considered using Crispr to make its chief product, cell-based steak. They ultimately decided against it because foods modified with Crispr are considered GMOs and therefore subject to strict regulatory rules. Meatable, a Dutch clean meat startup born out of a partnership with Cambridge, declined to say whether it's exploring the use of Crispr.
European regulators treat foods modified with Crispr as genetically modified, or GMO. The situation is more complicated in the US.
When it comes to plants, the US Department of Agriculture has declared that crops modified with Crispr will not be deemed genetically-modified so long as the edited DNA could also have been created using traditional breeding techniques. That decision has been cheered by researchers and scientists who aim to use the tool to bring climate-hardy crops to farmers across the globe and the first Crispr produce to market; anti-GMO activists have not been pleased.
As far as genetically-modified meat is concerned, the USDA and the US Food and Drug Administration will handle it jointly, according to a statement the agencies released on Thursday. For its part, the FDA will oversee everything related to cell collection and growth (this is also the part of the process when Crispr is used). The USDA will preside over clean meat production and labeling.
A Memphis Meats spokesperson emphasized to Business Insider that it was not sure if the technology it is exploring now will make it into its final products, or if instead it will merely be used in research.
"We know that trust is paramount, and we are committed to sharing all relevant aspects of our production process with consumers before Memphis Meats products are in our shopping carts and on our dinner plates," they said.