Fish, shellfish, and crustaceans are dietary staples for billions of people, and unsustainable fishing practices are decimating stocks worldwide. Some say fish farms are the answer, but these come with a host of environmental problems. That’s why a handful of scientists, entrepreneurs, artists and designers recently have begun to ponder a more radical solution: replacing nets with petri dishes.
“I think once people are more aware of the seafood supply chain, they’ll be looking for alternatives,” Dominique Barnes, co-founder of New Wave Foods told Gizmodo. “If you’re going to eat seafood, why not eat something that tastes just as good, with the same nutritional benefit, texture and flavor?”
Barnes’ company, a startup at the San Fransisco tech incubator IndieBio, made headlines last fall for its ambitious plan to create synthetic shrimp that’s indistinguishable from the real thing. The two-woman team is close to bringing its first “seafood” to market—and their success could pave the way for other entrepreneurs searching for a foothold in this emerging industry. But there are still a host of technical challenges to be overcome, and some experts question whether lab-grown seafood will ever be anything more than a technological novelty.
If you’ve heard anything about lab-grown meat, it’s probably thanks to a certain stem cell burger which created an international sensation in 2013. But efforts to grow meat in vitro can be traced back over a decade earlier—and one of the very first attempts involved fish.
In 2002, Morris Benjaminson, a professor emeritus at Touru University, received a small grant from NASA to explore the possibility of lab-grown meat, with the idea that future astronauts might use the technology to enjoy steak nights in space. In a rather grisly experiment, Benjaminson and his colleagues excised chunks of goldfish muscle from live fish and dunked them in vats of fetal bovine serum, a nutrient-rich cocktail brewed from the blood of unborn calves. After about a week, the severed fish chunks had grown in size by 14 percent and resembled small filets.
There were several reasons Benjaminson chose fish as his first victims. “From the standpoint of economics, you can get a lot of goldfish for the cost of a cow,” he told Gizmodo. The fact that fish are cold-blooded was also appealing, because it meant the cell culture conditions weren’t so temperature sensitive. But despite promising results, NASA never followed up on Benjaminson’s study, and the bizarre dream of lab-grown goldfish in space was abandoned.
Years later, in vitro meat hit the news again when Mark Post of the University of Maastricht unveiled the world’s first cultured beef burger, grown in a nutrient solution using stem cells extracted from a live cow. It cost a staggering $330,000 to make, and according to reviews, it was rather bland. Nevertheless, the burger got the world’s attention, sparking a serious conversation about whether synthetic biology was in the meat industry’s future.
Biotech startups around the world are now staking out other food animals for in vitro culturing. The Israeli-based Modern Agriculture Foundation has taken up the stem-cell chicken breast challenge, while Memphis Meats, another IndieBio startup, is now claiming it’ll have lab-grown pork and beef for sale in less than five years.
And last year, another company joined this land animal-dominated scene: New Wave Foods, whose shellfish-flavored meat substitute has been described as “Silicon Valley’s most ambitious Frankenfood.” Barnes told Gizmodo that it was her background in marine science and conservation that inspired her to focus on the shrimping industry.
“Shrimp is the number one seafood we eat,” she said. “There’s not enough in the ocean to feed our demand, so we usually turn to shrimp farming, which comes with all sorts of terrible environmental practices.”
These include the destruction of mangrove swamps, which provide habitat for tropical fish while buffering coastal cities from hurricanes and floods. By focusing on a major market, Barnes hopes to put synthetic seafood on the map as a solution to ecological problems.
Unlike cultured meat, which is grown from the cells of the animal it’s meant to replace, New Wave Foods’ “shrimp” is a cleverly disguised, algae-based substitute.
“Texture is our first goal,” Barnes said. “We’re getting very close, but we’re not at shrimp cocktail shrimp just yet.” Recently, the team had a small breakthrough when it managed to isolate the red algae that gives shrimp its color and antioxidants. For Barnes, matching the nutritional profile of real shrimp is a top priority.
At an IndieBio expo in San Fransisco last week, New Wave Foods offered its very first synthetic shrimp samples to the public. Gizmodo’s Cheryl Eddy, who attended the event, was impressed. Although not even much of a shrimp fan, Eddy said the flavor was great and the texture didn’t seem off. (To be fair, it was breaded and deep-fried.)
Once New Wave Foods has finalized its recipe, the challenge will be scaling up production economically. Barnes imagines that synthetic shrimp will be a high-end, niche product at first, but she’s hopeful that it’ll eventually trickle down to a broader market. Kosher catering company L’chaim Foods (yes, synthetic shrimp is kosher) and Google have already placed the first orders.
“We’re really focused on keeping the price low,” Barnes said. “That means looking at production methods and ingredients that already exist. One of the beauties of this product is we don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”
If shrimpless shrimp catches on, it’ll be a major step forward for synthetic seafood. But what of the stem cell technologies championed by Post and others? Will we ever be able to purchase actual lab-grown fish filets, or shrimp, or lobster meat, at a grocery store?
Another way of looking at that question: will the tissue culture techniques scientists are developing for beef and pork translate to animals with very different anatomy and physiology?
“As far as I’m aware, very little research has been done,” said Oron Catts, the director of SymbioticA, an artistic research center that explores how biotechnology is changing our relationship with the living world.
An artist, designer, and tissue engineer, Catts has spent the last twenty years pushing the boundaries of synthetic biology and challenging our conception of food. As a research fellow in tissue engineering at Harvard in the early 2000s, he was invited to grow in vitro meat for an exhibition in France. He decided to tackle frogs legs.
“We chose frogs to play with our perception of food,” Catts told Gizmodo. “French people find eating engineered foods problematic, while Americans find eating frogs problematic. We brought those together as a way of asking difficult questions.”
After culturing cells in a public display for almost three months, Catts came away with about five grams of lab-grown frog muscle, “one of the best pieces of meat I’ve ever grown.” He’s currently preparing a similar exhibition for the Dublin Science Gallery—this one featuring insects. The setup is a bench-top bioreactor that feeds nutrients to a cell culture system, which pumps out small amounts of insect tissue, “almost like a cow being milked,” Catts said.
Catts isn’t afraid to set up outlandish demonstrations to challenge conventional thinking about food. But what’s most impressive is the amount of leg work he’s had to do to simply arrive at a few grams of meat from these exotic animals. Tissue engineering techniques for warm-blooded mammals are well-established, but fish, amphibians, and invertebrates are uncharted territory. Everything about the cell culture conditions—nutrients, temperatures, oxygen levels—needs to be worked out from scratch.
And by doing this groundbreaking science, Catts is developing tools that could, in the future, be applied to more familiar food animals. “Lobsters and shrimp are very similar to insects, and that’s likely going to be one of the next iterations of the project,” he said.
But while Catts enjoys pushing the boundaries of synthetic biology, he’s more reserved when talking about the place in vitro meat can—or should—occupy on our dinner tables. When I asked him about lab-grown seafood, he cautioned against thinking that technology will allow us to continue consuming large amounts of fish without any consequences.
“Many say that in vitro meat is a way to solve resource problems,” he said. “I find that to be problematic. I think it makes a lot more sense to say this could be a luxury good, one that develops along with molecular gastronomy.”
Koert van Mensvoort, the designer and engineer behind the future food website Bistro In Vitro, agrees. “I think increasingly we are becoming convinced that it’s better to introduce cultured meat in the high end of the market, where a special chef makes a special dish,” he said.
While scientists are developing the technologies behind synthetic meat, Van Mensvoort is working with artists, designers, and engineers to envision what our lab-grown dinners will look like. Bistro In Vitro, which calls itself “the first lab-grown meat restaurant,” allow the gastronomically curious to create fantasy food menus, and populate them with everything from synthetic sashimi to bioreactor-grown oysters on the half shell.
According to Van Mensvoort, Bistro In Vitro isn’t trying to promote lab-grown meat, but rather to open our minds to the possibility. “It’s science fiction designed around a very tangible product that you can think about and really consider,” he said. “I think this should be celebrated as a technology.”
And perhaps that’s the best way to look at stem cell fish filets, or algae-based shrimp—as products of emerging technology that have the potential to transform our relationship with food. Certainly, lab grown fish isn’t going to feed billions of people or solving our overfishing crisis anytime soon. But would you eat a cultured salmon roll? And if enough people did, could this idea become something much more than science fiction?
Personally, I hope the answer is yes.
Follow the author @themadstone
Artwork via Jim Cooke