Singapore has approved the sale of a lab-grown meat product in an effort to secure its food supplies against disease and climate change.
Singapore faces a problem. The city-state currently imports the bulk of its food from overseas, producing only 10 percent domestically. This state of affairs leaves Singapore in a vulnerable position. An outbreak of disease, for example, could have outsized consequences on the country's food supply. So could the souring of fruitful political or economic partnerships. Looking into the future, climate change and population growth could see today's trade-friendly ports shuttered with closed signs as global food supplies become more tenuous.
In light of this reality, Singaporean leaders are doing something drastic and unprecedented for a world government—they're planning ahead.
Under the "30-by-30" Plan, Singapore aims to produce 30 percent of its food by the year 2030. But unlike the dominant food-producing countries—China, India, the U.S., and Brazil—this tiny island nation lacks the acreage to dedicate to traditional agriculture, so they've turned to modern technology. To produce more with less, the Singapore Food Agency is experimenting with rooftop gardens, high-rise hydroponic farms, and high-yield genetic crops.
Singapore is also looking at lab-grown meat as a sustainable, secure alternative to today's factory farming. In a recent step toward that future, its officials have given regulatory approval to sell lab-grown meat.
Approve for your dining pleasure
Eat Just, a company that produces animal-alternative food products, announced the news earlier this week. In what the company is calling a world first, Singapore has given it permission for a small-scale commercial launch of their GOOD Meat brand product line. For the initial run, the cultured chicken meat will be sold as an ingredient in "chicken bites."
"Singapore has long been a leader in innovation of all kinds, from information technology to biologics to now leading the world in building a healthier, safer food system. I'm sure that our regulatory approval for cultured meat will be the first of many in Singapore and in countries around the globe," Josh Tetrick, co-founder and CEO of Eat Just, said in a release.
According to the release, Eat Just underwent an extensive safety review by the Singapore Food Agency. It provided officials "details on the purity, identity and stability of chicken cells during the manufacturing process, as well as a detailed description of the manufacturing process which demonstrated that harvested cultured chicken met quality controls and a rigorous food safety monitoring system." It also demonstrated the consistency of its production by running more than 20 cycles in its 1,200-liter bioreactors.
While Eat Just did not offer details on its propriety process, it likely follows one similar to other lab-grown meats. It starts with muscle cell samples drawn from a living animal. Technicians then isolate stem cells from the sample and culture them in vitro. These cultured stem cells are then placed in a bioreactor, essentially a fermenter for fleshy cells. The bioreactor contains scaffolding materials to keep the growing tissue from falling apart as well as a growth material—the sugars, salts, and other nutrients the tissue needs to grow. As the cells grow, they begin to differentiate into the muscle, fat, and other cells of meat tissue. Once grown, the tissues are formed into a meat product to be shipped to restaurants and supermarkets.
An abattoir abatement?
A graph showing the number of animals slaughtered in the United States per year from 1961–2018.
Credit: Our World in Data
Singapore's approval is an important step in support for clean meats—so-called because they don't require animal slaughter and would likely leave a reduced carbon footprint—but hurdles remain before widespread adoption is possible.
The most glaring is the price. The first lab-grown hamburger was eaten in London in 2013. It cost roughly $330,000. As with any new technology, investment, iteration, and improved manufacturing will see the price drop substantially and quickly. For comparison, Eat Just's chicken will be priced equivalent to premium chicken.
Other hurdles include up-scaling production, the need for further research, and developing techniques to reliably produce in-demand meats such as fish and beef. Finally, not all countries may be as receptive as Singapore. Countries with large, entrenched meat industries may protect this legacy industry through a protracted and difficult regulatory process. Though, the meat industry itself is investing in lab-grown meat. Tyson Foods, for example, has invested in the food-tech startup Memphis Meats, the company that debuted the world's first beef meatball.
"I would imagine what will happen is the U.S., Western Europe and others will see what Singapore has been able to do, the rigours of the framework that they put together. And I would imagine that they will try to use it as a template to put their own framework together," Tetrick told Reuter's during an interview.
Regardless of the challenges, the demand for meat substitutes is present and growing. In 2020, plant-based substitutes like Beyond Meat and Impossible foods gained a significant foothold in supermarkets as meat-packing factories became coronavirus hotspots. The looming threat of climate change has also turned people away from meat as animal products. Livestock production is environmentally taxing and leaves a much larger carbon footprint than grain and vegetable production.
Then there's the moral concern of animal cruelty. In 2018 alone, 302 million cows, 656 million turkeys, 1.48 billion pigs, and a gob-smacking 68 billion chickens were slaughtered for meat worldwide. And those figures do not include chickens killed in dairy or egg production.
If brought to scale and widely available, clean meats could become serious competitors to traditional meat. One report has even predicted that 60 percent of the meat people eat by 2040 won't come from slaughtered animals. It could be just the thing for people looking for a meat substitute but who find tofurkey as distasteful as, well tofurkey.
The Google-owned company developed a system that can reliably predict the 3D shapes of proteins.
- Scientists have long been puzzled by how specific chains of amino acids go on to form three-dimensional proteins.
- DeepMind developed a system that's able to predict "protein folding" in a fraction of the time of human experiments, and with unprecedented accuracy.
- The achievement could greatly improve drug research and development, as well as bioengineering pursuits.
In 1994, a group of scientists created a competition to solve one of the most perplexing problems in biology: how do proteins fold themselves into 3D shapes, which then carry out fundamental processes within living organisms?
The answer to this 50-year-old question could revolutionize many scientific pursuits, from accelerating and improving drug development, to creating better biofuels. But the competition, called Critical Assessment of Protein Structure Prediction (CASP), went decades without a solution.
Then artificial intelligence got into the mix.
DeepMind, a U.K.-based AI company, essentially solved the long-standing problem in the most recent competition, CASP14. The company outperformed the other teams by magnitudes, predicting the shapes of proteins with accuracy rates never before achieved by humans.
"This is a big deal," John Moult, a computational biologist who co-founded CASP, told Nature. "In some sense the problem is solved."
In the biennial competition, teams analyze around 100 proteins with the goal of predicting their eventual 3D shape. A protein's shape determines its function. For example, a protein can become an antibody that binds to foreign particles to protect, an enzyme that carries out chemical reactions, or a structural component that supports cells.
Proteins start as a string of hundreds of amino acids. Within a protein, pairs of amino acids can interact in numerous ways, and these particular interactions determine the final shape of the protein. But given the sheer number of possible interactions, it's incredibly difficult to predict a protein's physical shape. Difficult, but not impossible.
Since CASP began, scientists have been able to predict the shape of some simple proteins with reasonable accuracy. CASP is able to verify the accuracy of these predictions by comparing them to the actual shape of proteins, which it obtains through the unpublished results of lab experiments.
But these experiments are difficult, often taking months or years of hard work. The shapes of some proteins have eluded scientists for decades. As such, it's hard to overstate the value of having an AI that's able to churn out this work in just hours, or even minutes.
In 2018, DeepMind, which was acquired by Google in 2014, startled the scientific community when its AlphaFold algorithm won the CASP13 contest. AlphaFold was able to predict protein shapes by "training" itself on vast amounts of data on known amino acid strings and their corresponding protein shapes.
In other words, AlphaFold learned that particular amino acid configurations—say, distances between pairs, angles between chemical bonds—signaled that the protein would likely take a particular shape. AlphaFold then used these insights to predict the shapes of unmapped proteins. AlphaFold's performance in the 2018 contest was impressive, but not reliable enough to consider the problem of "protein folding" solved.
In the latest contest, DeepMind used an updated version of AlphaFold. It combines the previous deep-learning strategy with a new "attention algorithm" that accounts for physical and geometric factors. Here's how DeepMind describes it:
"A folded protein can be thought of as a 'spatial graph,' where residues are the nodes and edges connect the residues in close proximity. This graph is important for understanding the physical interactions within proteins, as well as their evolutionary history."
"For the latest version of AlphaFold, used at CASP14, we created an attention-based neural network system, trained end-to-end, that attempts to interpret the structure of this graph, while reasoning over the implicit graph that it's building. It uses evolutionarily related sequences, multiple sequence alignment (MSA), and a representation of amino acid residue pairs to refine this graph."
CASP measures prediction accuracy through the "Global Distance Test (GDT)", which ranges from 0-100. The new version of AlphaFold scored a median of 92.4 GDT for all targets.
Given that the specific ways in which proteins take shape can shed light on how diseases form, AlphaFold could greatly accelerate disease research and drug development. And while it's too late for the system to help with COVID-19, DeepMind says that protein structure prediction could be "useful in future pandemic response efforts."
Still, scientists have much to learn about predicting protein structures, and while AlphaFold has proven faster and more accurate than human experiments, the system isn't 100 percent accurate. But DeepMind's achievement signals that AI may become a surprisingly powerful tool in unlocking key mysteries in biology and beyond.
"For all of us working on computational and machine learning methods in science, systems like AlphaFold demonstrate the stunning potential for AI as a tool to aid fundamental discovery," DeepMind wrote. "Just as 50 years ago Anfinsen laid out a challenge far beyond science's reach at the time, there are many aspects of our universe that remain unknown. The progress announced today gives us further confidence that AI will become one of humanity's most useful tools in expanding the frontiers of scientific knowledge, and we're looking forward to the many years of hard work and discovery ahead!"
An overfished planet needs a better solution. Fortunately, it's coming.
- Cell-based fish companies are getting funding and making progress in offering a new wave of seafood.
- Overfishing and rising ocean temperatures are destroying entire ecosystems.
- The reality of cell-based fish is likely five to 10 years away.
The world does not have infinite resources. Yet as humans have exploded in population, from 1 billion in 1804 to nearly 8 billion today, we've treated the planet as our perpetual garden, leading to numerous problems, including overfishing. Over one-third of fisheries worldwide are pushed beyond their limits. Tragically, we continue to decimate populations year after year.
If we remain at the current pace, in a few decades all we'll have left to eat is jellyfish—yet another consequence of climate change. Sure, some of the 200 species are edible, though there's a reason you don't see shortages of jellyfish poke. We need to be proactive and limit trawling and other environmentally damaging practices. We also need to innovate, as a few companies are doing.
Enter lab-grown fish.
Some recoil at the mere mention, yet that's what innovation entails. We've gotten ourselves into this problem through technology—giant ships that drudge up entire ecosystems in a matter of hours—and technology might just help keep one of the most nutritious food sources on the planet in our diet. In the last half-century, oceanic "dead zones" have quadrupled due to human intervention. That practice cannot last.
While in countries like America, fish are a healthy option but not a necessity, many other countries rely on seafood as a main staple in their diet—according to the UN, 3.2 billion people. Beyond trawlers, warming ocean temperatures are destroying fish populations. This trend isn't only destroying diets but entire economies as well.
Future of Food: This genetically engineered salmon may hit U.S. markets as early as 2020
While cell-based beef is getting all the press, companies like BlueNalu recently raised $24.5 million in funding. The San Diego-based start-up extracts muscle cells from an anesthetized fish, treats the cells with enzymes in a culture, places the mixture in a nutrient solution in a bioreactor, spins it all around in a centrifuge, and finally 3D-prints the new concoction into the desired shape.
The goal isn't to perfectly replicate a fish that you'd find on ice in your local market. No brain, skin, organs, or even possibility of consciousness are in this creature. In a strange twist, this makes cell-based seafood a potential food source for vegetarians and vegans, since the Adam fish can be returned to the waters unharmed.
One current solution to overfishing—fish farms—comes with it a host of problems, including the proliferation of sea lice, which have a tendency to escape the porous boundaries to infect wild fish. Bonus: with cell-based fish, you won't run into any issues with mercury or microplastics.
What you'll (hopefully) purchase is a good-tasting product, which has thus far been elusive. BlueNalu CEO, Lou Cooperhouse, is confident his company's product will eventually meet standards set by your taste buds.
"Our medallions of yellowtail can be cooked via direct heat, steamed or even fried in oil; can be marinated in an acidified solution for applications like poke, ceviche, and kimchi, or can be prepared in the raw state."
Photo: aleksandr / Shutterstock
There are barriers, of course. As with pluripotent meats, cell-based fish are expensive. A spicy salmon roll produced by the start-up, Wildtype, cost $200 to make. It's going to take a while for the price to drop and consumer demand to rise; estimates are five to ten years.
Another issue is indicative of solar power and wind energy trying to cut in on Big Oil: the seafood industry doesn't want to lose its profit margin. Of course, like oil companies, Big Seafood is betting on a finite resource. The sooner they realize that, the better.
Then there's production, which is where education comes into play. Former BlueNalu Chairman Chris Somogyi tries to demystify the laboratory process.
"We aren't using CRISPR technology. We aren't introducing new molecules into the diet. We're not introducing a new entity that doesn't exist in nature. The approval will be about whether this is safe, clean and are the manufacturing processes reliable and accountable."
If there's an ick factor to cell-based fish, remember that most processed foods are already created in laboratories. There are no Oreo trees or ketchup plants to harvest.
For now, these start-ups and others like them will have to figure out how to create non-energy-intensive and cost-prohibitive solutions for spinning up seafood inside of a petri dish. Novelty alone will create enough demand to get them going, as precedent in the lab-grown meat industry shows.
The reality is that we need to go down this path. There are too many humans and not enough resources. While we can hope (as David Attenborough does in his new Netflix documentary) that national governments will create more no-fish zones, there's no guarantee that will happen. We need science to win this one.
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His new book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."
Techshot's 3D BioFabrication Facility successfully printed human heart tissue aboard the International Space Station.
Since the first kidney was successfully transplanted in 1954, organ donations have saved millions of lives. But this modern miracle is a zero-sum savior. The lives that can be prolonged are directly limited by the number of organs available, and ever-growing donor lists have outpaced that number. Only 3 deaths in a 1,000 result in organs capable of being donated, and less than two-thirds of U.S. adults are registered donors.
We can certainly do more to ensure a healthy supply of donor organs, but some factors will always remain out of our control. That is, unless we can simply make them. That suggestion may sound more alchemical than scientific, but thanks to technological ingenuity, it could one day be a genuine option for surgeons and their patients.
We spoke with Rich Boling and Eugene Boland, vice president and chief scientists of Techshot, an Indiana-based company hoping to make that option a reality with its proprietary bioprinter. And the company is heralding this future from—where else?—space!
All that's fit to bioprint
Dr. Eugene Boland, Techshot's chief scientist, presents the 3D BioFabrication Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, Florida
As it says on the tin, a bioprinter is a device that fabricates living structures using biological materials and super-fine needlepoints. Those materials are provided through a substance known as bioink. As Boland explained, bioinks are a combination of cells, proteins, sugars, and other nutrients and small molecules. Everything a budding human tissue needs to grow.
The first described bioprinting systems came about in the early 2000s. Since then, bioprinters have seen some success in manufacturing bone and cartilage, the harder human tissues. The softer tissues that make up human organs, however, have proven more difficult. Because of their low viscosity, these soft biomaterials collapse after being printed—Earth's gravity tearing them apart under their weight. Think of a microscopic Jell-O mold that hasn't set properly.
To get around this, Boland noted, earthbound scientists must add thickeners or scaffolding to their test prints. "You're adding something to it, to make it thicker, to get a better Jell-O mold. To do the same thing when you're bioprinting, you're adding a foreign material to it to increase its thickness or its viscosity to make it stand up on its own." But such foreign materials aren't part of a body's natural processes. They prevent cells from migrating through them, inhibiting cellular mobility as well as cells' ability to remodel or adapt to their natural environment.
This is the reason Techshot sent its bioprinter, the 3D BioFabrication Facility (BFF), to space. It wasn't for the sci-fi luster—though, that is a cool fringe benefit. Rather, it was to escape Earth's cell-shearing gravity to try bioprinting soft human tissue in a microgravity environment.
A heart from your new BFF
In partnership with nScrypt, Techshot developed the BFF to manufacture human tissue in space. In July 2019, they launched the bioprinter aboard the SpaceX CRS-18 cargo mission to be delivered to the International Space Station. There, it was loaded up with nerve, muscle, and vascular bioinks. As the BFF pinned the cells together in a culturing cassette, generating layers several times thinner than a human hair, the microgravity environment ensured the low-viscosity structure kept together. That's courtesy of the same surface tension property that allows for those moving water spheres astronauts love to play with.
"So, now you can have a vascular cell where you want a blood vessel to be, the nerve cell where you want the nerve to pass through, and muscle cells where you need a muscle bundle to be," Boland said. "All of those will stay where you put them in three-dimensions and then grow and mature where you want them."
A non-cellular ink was added to the mix to provide a bit of framework and prevent cells from sliding around during the printing process. But because Earth's gravity had less pull, this framework didn't need to be as ridged as terrestrial scaffolding. This non-cellular ink was water-soluble, meaning it could be washed away after the printing was complete. The end result, a more natural fabrication of human tissue.
Once 25 percent of the cells needed for the mature tissue were in place, the cell-culturing cassette was moved to another payload, the Advanced Space Experiment Processor (ADSEP). There, the cells lived and grew as they would naturally. Fully differentiated cells signaled to the adult stems cells that they should be heart cells. The stem cells grew and multiplied, supported by the nutrients provided in the ink. A few weeks later and the cassette was home to human heart tissue.
This January, Techshot announced the BFF had cultured successful test prints aboard the ISS. These heart prints measured 30 mm long by 20 mm wide by 12.6mm high. In a follow-up experiment, the BFF also manufactured test prints of a partial human knee meniscus, the soft cartilage that acts as a shock absorber between your shinbone and thighbone.
The future of medicine is in space?
NASA Astronaut Jessica Meir prepares Techshot's cell-culturing cassettes for their return trip to Earth.
Credit: NASA Johnson/Flickr
For its next run, Techshot wants to improve the cell-culturing cassette, refining conditions and more effectively flushing out trapped air. Its researchers are also looking into making cells in orbit. Then there is the process of scaling up from test prints to functioning tissue pieces (say, heart patches) to fully operational organs. Then there are the challenges of space flight and the long road of regulation.
"We're dedicated to the long haul here," Boling said during our interview. "We have agreements with NASA that permit us to iterate and fly-and-try to continue and improve. We brought the BFF and ADSEP back from the space station late summer to make those improvements based on what we have learned so we can send it back up."
Yet, the windfall goes well beyond shoring up our stock of donor organs. Bioprinting has the potential to dramatically advance the field of personalized medicine. For example, one danger of transplants is rejection by the host body. This happens when a recipient's immune system views the life-saving tissue as a foreign invader and attacks it. About 40 percent of heart recipients experience acute rejection in the first year, requiring doctors to prescribe immunosuppressant drugs.
Crafting an organ from a patient's personal stem-cell stock has the potential to reduce this risk. Replacement parts, such as heart patches, could also be patient-specific. Test prints could be constructed to analyze how a patient's system responds to specific drugs and treatments, taking in vitro experiments out of the Petri dish and into a microenvironment more representative of the natural human body.
"Instead of the trial-and-error medicine of the 20th century, you'll have the personalized medicine that has always been just around the corner. [This technology] may be an answer to that," Boland said.
And we could take bioprinting farther into space. Boling foresees a future where the technology could travel with us to the Moon or beyond. There it could serve personalized pharmaceutical needs for stationed astronauts, or if paired with a Cell Factory, it could print meats made from bovine or pig cells. Ethical, yet potentially indistinguishable from its farm-raised counterpart.
We've come a long way since the 1950s. Many people are alive today thanks to what that first kidney transplant showed medical science. True, Techshot's test prints are small compared to an entire human organ, with its complex and interconnected network of epithelial, connective, muscle, and nervous tissue. But if printing an organ is equivalent to urban planning a cellular city, then Techshot's accomplishment is certainly the first of many skyscrapers toward that goal. That goal could be the proof on concept that saves many more.
A recent study tested how well the fungi species Cladosporium sphaerospermum blocked cosmic radiation aboard the International Space Station.
- Radiation is one of the biggest threats to astronauts' safety during long-term missions.
- C. sphaerospermum is known to thrive in high-radiation environments through a process called radiosynthesis.
- The results of the study suggest that a thin layer of the fungus could serve as an effective shield against cosmic radiation for astronauts.
When astronauts return to the moon or travel to Mars, how will they shield themselves against high levels of cosmic radiation? A recent experiment aboard the International Space Station suggests a surprising solution: a radiation-eating fungus, which could be used as a self-replicating shield against gamma radiation in space.
The fungus is called Cladosporium sphaerospermum, an extremophile species that thrives in high-radiation areas like the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. For C. sphaerospermum, radiation isn't a threat — it's food. That's because the fungus is able to convert gamma radiation into chemical energy through a process called radiosynthesis. (Think of it like photosynthesis, but swap out sunlight for radiation.)
The radiotrophic fungus performs radiosynthesis by using melanin — the same pigment that gives color to our skin, hair and eyes — to convert X- and gamma rays into chemical energy. Scientists don't fully understand this process yet. But the study notes that it's "believed that large amounts of melanin in the cell walls of these fungi mediate electron-transfer and thus allow for a net energy gain."
Shunk et al.
Additionally, the fungus is self-replicating, meaning astronauts would potentially be able to "grow" new radiation shielding on deep-space missions, instead of having to rely on a costly and complicated interplanetary supply chain.
Still, the researchers weren't sure whether C. sphaerospermum would survive on the space station. Nils J.H. Averesch, a co-author of the study published on the preprint server bioRxiv, told SYFY WIRE:
"While on Earth, most sources of radiation are gamma- and/or X-rays; radiation in space and on Mars (also known as GCR or galactic cosmic radiation) is of a completely different kind and involves highly energetic particles, mostly protons. This radiation is even more destructive than X- and gamma-rays, so not even survival of the fungus on the ISS was a given."
To test the "radio-resistance" of C. sphaerospermum in space, petri dishes containing a .06-inch layer of the fungus were exposed to cosmic radiation aboard the ISS. Dishes containing no fungus were exposed, too. The results showed that the fungus cut radiation levels by about 2 percent.
Extrapolating these results, the researchers estimated that a roughly 8-inch layer of C. sphaerospermum "could largely negate the annual dose-equivalent of the radiation environment on the surface of Mars." That would be a significant benefit to astronauts. After all, an astronaut who is one year into a Mars mission would have been exposed to roughly 66 times more radiation than the average person on Earth.
International Space Station
To be sure, the researchers said more research is needed, and that C. sphaerospermum would likely be used in combination with other radiation-shielding technology aboard spacecraft. But the findings highlight how relatively simple biotechnologies may offer outsized benefits on upcoming space missions.
"Often nature has already developed blindly obvious yet surprisingly effective solutions to engineering and design problems faced as humankind evolves – C. sphaerospermum and melanin could thus prove to be invaluable in providing adequate protection of explorers on future missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond," the researchers wrote.