Food can propel you to another time, another culture, another place without ever leaving the dinner table. But what if your surf and turf could make it to your plate without a fish leaving the water or a cow leaving the farm?

Cultivated meat — animal cells grown in vitro to form anything from chicken tenders to salmon fillets — is pushing the boundaries of food production at a time when the agriculture industry is racing to keep up with growing demand. Researchers from Virginia Tech are helping to usher in the era of lab-to-table protein to help to fill that gap.

A team from Virginia Tech is part of a multi-institutional team of researchers recently awarded a $10 million grant, marking the first investment in cellular agriculture research and development by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the most robust contribution from the U.S. government in the field to date.

“Blending our current agricultural practices with plant-based protein and novel cellular agriculture will boost the food supply to meet demand while reducing pressure on natural resources,” explained Reza Ovissipour, an assistant professor in the Virginia Tech Department of Food Science and Technology, Virginia Cooperative Extension specialist, and lead for the Future Foods Lab and Cellular Agriculture Initiative within the Virginia Seafood Agricultural Research and Extension Center.

The five-year grant, awarded through the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative’s Sustainable Agricultural Systems program area, aims to address food supply challenges in American agriculture production by advancing education, extension, and technologies for cultivated meat, also known as cell-based or lab-grown meat. The project's ultimate goal is to help achieve a 40 percent increase in American agriculture production with a reduction in environmental footprint by 50 percent.

With the world approaching a population of 10 billion by 2050, conventional food production methods alone are not enough to keep pace with growing demand for food and meat. Compounded with diminishing land and water resources and an accelerating climate crisis, new technologies that maximize resource efficiency and minimize waste are needed to feed an increasingly hungry world.

"Cultivated meat products could help to fill the gap in the food supply," said Ovissipour, who is also affiliated with the Fralin Life Sciences Institute, the Center for Coastal Studies, and the Center for Emerging, Zoonotic, and Arthropod-borne Pathogens and is an assistant professor for Virginia Tech's Genetics, Bioinformatics, and Computational Biology Ph.D. program. "With proper research and development, cell-based meat is positioned to be an alternative and supplement to conventional meat in light of the growing need to bolster the future food supply."

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Though the private cellular agriculture industry has made strides in recent years, including the launch of the world’s first commercially available cultured meat product in Singapore in 2020, this funding in public research comes at a time when several factors stifle significant production scale-up: the high cost of production, incomplete knowledge of consumer preferences, and limited access to suitable cell lines to begin the cell culture process, to name a few.

Whether a fish fillet, a beef patty, or a chicken nugget, everything begins with cells — the basic building blocks of organisms.

“In our lab, we’re focused on stem cells from aquatic species to create seafood products,” explained Lexi Duscher, a postdoctoral researcher at the Virginia Seafood AREC and grant Co-PI working in Ovissipour’s lab.

Using fish stem cells, which can be ethically collected from live animals, Duscher will differentiate cells to selectively grow muscle and fat cells — the same cells and tissues that make up the fish fillets you can buy at the store. The cells, grown in specialized media in the lab, will then be assembled into a fish fillet.

Ovissipour and his team at the Virginia Seafood AREC will address gaps in cellular agriculture development specific to seafood products. Funding will support stem cell line development for priority seafood species, research into alternative media for growing cells, and machine learning and artificial intelligence applications to optimize production and reduce cost.

The project brings together six academic institutions —Virginia Tech, Tufts University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of California, Davis, Virginia State University, and the University of Massachusetts, Boston. Their collaboration will provide a clearer picture of what this novel technology could make possible for consumers, the environment, and the future of food.

Led by David Kaplan of Tufts University, the multidisciplinary research team leverages individual expertise in molecular biology, biomedical engineering, food chemistry, food safety, environmental science, marketing, and more. Researchers from Virginia Tech will receive $3.2 million in funding to help address barriers stifling industry scale-up for cellular agriculture as a novel food production system, ultimately helping to secure the future food supply and provide consumers with new product options to experience their favorite meat dishes in a new way.

The team will deliver target consumer preference information, data on consumer willingness to pay for lab-grown products, media and cell lines for terrestrial and aquatic animals, and an education and training pathway to equip the next generation of professionals with the multidisciplinary skillsets needed to provide technical guidance and leadership for the budding industry.

“In addition to the science, a trained and capable workforce is required to bolster the field of cellular agriculture,” Kaplan said. “The rapid growth of industries focused on alternative protein-rich foods over the past five years has left a gap in available trained individuals to support the technology development and company expansion.” 

Building a bite of food requires the growth of millions of cells. A major technical challenge inhibiting industry scale-up is the cost of the specialized, nutrient-rich media used to grow cells at a high volume in lab settings.

The media traditionally used for cell culture in biomedical applications uses bovine serum harvested from animals. This serum-based media is as expensive as it is ethically dubious in its sourcing for use in cellular agriculture applications.

“More than 90 percent of the cell culture cost is because of the media, and more than 99 percent of the media cost is because of the bovine serum,” Ovissipour said. “We are using bioprocessing technology and fermentation to convert agricultural wastes, various insects, algae, and other resources into growth factors for cells to replace serum, and we are also developing a recirculating system to use this spent serum-free media to save more money for industry, provide an animal-free alternative, and reduce waste.”

Dr. Reza Ovissipour, lead PI for the Future Foods Lab and Cellular Agriculture Initiative
Reza Ovissipour, principal investigator for the Future Foods Lab and Cellular Agriculture Initiative, working in his lab in Hampton, Virginia. Photo by Keri Rouse for Virginia Tech.

Using animal stem cells and plant-based media, lab technicians can differentiate cells and grow muscle and fat cell types that can then be assembled into a final meat product. Mimicking a fish fillet using cell culture then requires structural engineering at the microscopic level.

“There are different ways to form the final meat product, but our lab will be focused on 3D bioprinting as well as scaffolding with plant-based and sustainable materials to achieve that delicious, flavorful meat texture,” Duscher said.

Bioprinting is an extension of conventional 3D printing — with one key difference — instead of depositing a traditional material like plastic or metal, bioprinters can print layer upon layer of cells to replicate familiar cuts of meat.

An expanded laboratory facility, complete with a bioprinter, bioreactor, and cell culture hoods, is under construction as part of the new Virginia Seafood Agricultural Research and Extension Center facility on track for completion later this year.

The center, located on the water’s edge in Hampton, Virginia, will house Ovissipour’s team, which will grow to include an additional four postdoctoral researchers and three Ph.D. students throughout the grant.

A researcher with Future Foods Lab and Cellular Agriculture Initiative uses a microscope to count cells and assess the effectiveness of alternative media for growing fish cells.

A researcher with the Future Foods Lab and Cellular Agriculture Initiative counts cells to assess the effectiveness of alternative media for growing cells for seafood products.
A researcher with Future Foods Lab and Cellular Agriculture Initiative uses a microscope to count cells and assess the effectiveness of alternative media for growing fish cells.

Other Virginia Tech-affiliated faculty receiving funding through the grant:

Co-PI, Sean O’Keefe, a professor in the Department of Food Science and Technology, will lead the flavor chemistry research.

Co-PI, Jacob Lahne, an assistant professor in the Department of Food Science and Technology, will lead the sensory evaluation research.

Co-PI, Tiffany Drape, an assistant professor of Extension and outreach in the context of agriculture, leadership, and community education in the Department of Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education, will lead the evaluation process of this proposed work during the project term.

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