Race to harness biotechnology in alternative protein industry

By Stephen Guy on Wednesday 11 August 2021

Race to harness biotechnology in alternative protein industry
Image source: Machine learning/Pixabay
CommentarySynthetic BiologyAlternative protein

Stephen Guy, chief technical officer, the Plextek and Design Momentum Life Science Partnership, examines the race to harness biotechnology in the race to bring alternative proteins to the mass market.

Cellular agriculture is still a nascent field but has momentum behind it, following the approval of the first lab-grown meat in Singapore.

This translation of scientific expertise and techniques from the biotechnology industry to the agricultural industry, using scale-up cell systems have already enabled the production of a variety of protein derived products, including milk, leather and enzymes.

Supporters of cellular agriculture suggest that it potentially offers a step-change in production efficiency and a route to meeting the protein consuming needs of a rapidly growing world population.

In principle, cellular agriculture products may have a reduced environmental impact, and lead to the production of safer, purer products, as it is being produced in safe, sterile, controlled conditions.

A further key benefit of cellular agriculture is the ability to effectively design and modify these products, so that for example, meat could be produced which contains fewer saturated and more unsaturated fats, or milk without lactose, or eggs with reduced cholesterol.

There are around sixty companies actively engaged in this sector, and there continues to be an increasing flow of new funds and investment, largely attracted by the huge size of the addressable market, one of the largest in the world.

According to a recent study conducted by Polaris Market Research, the global Cultured Meat Market size is projected to reach $352.4 million by 2028  with a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 14.9 per cent from 2021 to 2028.

The report suggests that rapid developments related to cellular agriculture coupled with rising demand for alternative protein and rising concerns related to animal welfare and environmental sustainability, are the major factors driving market growth.

However, the translation of existing methods of cell "scale-up" from the biotechnology industry into cellular agriculture is not straightforward, as the capacity, throughput, cost profiles and regulatory requirements are very different.

At the PSL/DM partnership, we have been mapping-out some of the challenges involved with the aim of producing a technology roadmap that identifies the highest priority areas that need to be addressed and those that require further significant innovation.

A key driver for the growth of this industry has come from recent developments in genetic engineering and synthetic biology. 

However, further progress will require major contributions from multi-disciplinary teams, including biologists, food technologists, physicists, process engineers, product designers, bioprocessing experts, and software engineers.

Additionally, as this field develops, so too will the regulatory framework, so it is also important to include experts in quality assurance and regulatory matters.

From a technical perspective, it would seem sensible to initiate early-stage, scale-up trials using technologies that are already familiar within the biotechnology industry, such as stir tank bioreactors with the cells grown on microcarrier scaffolds, cell aggregates or spheroids, or on the surfaces of tissue culture flasks.

Under these conditions there may be some opportunities to reduce costs by investigating lower-cost alternatives for sensors monitoring conditions such as temperature, pH, O2 and CO2 concentrations, and associated consumables such as sterile connectors, tubing, and gas filters, amongst others. In the medium to longer term, significant advantages in capacity, throughput, and cost could be gained by introducing laboratory automation.

Equally, there may be value in considering at the outset the best way to treat waste from the processes, and if valuable elements such as glucose, glutamine and proteins could be recycled back into the process to reduce cost and impact on the environment.

For single use bioreactors, tissue culture flasks and disposables there is also the question of recycling these appropriately.

A significant area for technology innovation is the forming of the final product from the cellular materials and proteins ‘scaled-up’ in the bioreactor, and it can be expected that this will be a fertile area for the generation of new Intellectual Property (IP).

Energy requirements are also an important factor and do not just include the ‘set-up’ and running of processes such as incubation, but also routine cleaning and sterilisation. Thinking how this energy may be derived from renewable sources and factored into the overall costs, are important considerations.

An interesting factor when considering cellular agriculture is that it potentially lends itself to the application of mobile installations. That is, a mobile facility could be designed that can be shipped to a location closer to the populations that need it.

This does not necessarily overcome potential problems with the supporting supply chain but may offer options over existing local agricultural methods.

Undoubtedly, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning will also have a role to play, with the potential to support bioprocessing professionals and process engineers to develop tools to maximise yield, improve process efficiency, and deliver a consistent high-quality product.

The move of cellular agriculture out of the laboratory into product manufacturing will present many challenges requiring technology innovation.

But the rewards for could be transformational. According to the United Nations Environment Agency, meat consumption is one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gasses and it has warned that “we will pay the environmental and human price—unless we make a change now”.

Jim Mellon, the UK billionaire investor and author of ‘Moo's Law: An Investor's Guide to the New Agrarian Revolution’, believes that 50 percent of all meat eaten by humans on the planet will either be plant-based or cellular agriculture produced within the next 10 years.

He also predicts that half of the seafood will also be produced using cell aquaculture within this decade. He believes that the biotech industry will be able to evolve processes that will help them bring down the price of price of plant-based foods to that of conventionally farmed foods. The race is on.