As the world adapts towards climate change, it is foreseen that livestock and aquatic produce will soon take its toll. With this threat looming in the future, the Department of Science and Technology-Biosafety Committee (DOST-BC)  decided to explore scientific solution in addressing this concern by inviting Dr. David L. Kaplan from Tufts University, Boston, Massachusetts, USA to talk on “Cellular Agriculture” in its monthly webinar last July 30, 2022 via Zoom platform.

Dr. Kaplan is a Stern Family Endowed Professor of Engineering at Tufts University and a Distinguished University Professor. He is also a Professor and Chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, with a joint appointment at Tufts Medical School and in the Department of Chemistry. His research focus is on biopolymer engineering, tissue engineering, regenerative medicine and cellular agriculture. He directed the NIH P41 Tissue Engineering Resource Center (TERC) that involves Tufts University and Columbia University for 15 years. His laboratory has been responsible for over 100 patents issued or allowed, and numerous start-up companies. He has received a number of awards for his research and teaching and is an elected Fellow of the American Institute of Medical and Biological Engineering and the National Academy of Engineering.

Dr. Kaplan started his presentation by providing the Committee a brief background about “Cellular Agriculture”, a process of using the cell of an animals or insects to grow food. He explained  that when the muscle or fat cells are collected, they are cultivated to multiply the cells that were extracted or isolated. Once the cells are cultivated, they then go through the process of scaling, taking the suitable and edible bio materials to grow. He emphasized that the heart and soul of the process is the right cells from the right species that in principle would look and taste similar with better nutritional value like what are being consumed today.

A comparison of cellular production with plant- based production was made, where he showed that plant-based production is challenged by  high cost, over processing, and in terms of nutrition, not as good as the regular food.  On the other hand, cellular agriculture has better nutrition, less processing and cost efficient.

Dr. Kaplan also mentioned the five (5) reasons why there is a need to look for alternative food.

First is the growth of population, which, according to studies, the world’s total population is expected to hit 10 billion by 2050. With this foreseen growth, scientific innovations like this one could pave the way in addressing food shortage and malnutrition. The other reasons are food safety, food security, public health and sustainability. These factors contribute to the impending scarcity of our natural resources due to climate change. Animal welfare is another reason where Dr. Kaplan mentioned that there is a high  level of concern around the quality, health, and safety of animals. Last is food equity,  equal access to and the ability to grow and consume healthy and affordable food.

With these reasons, Dr. Kaplan stated that these issues can be addressed by cellular agriculture which can be done in a coordinated way.

As he finished the discussion on the importance of alternative foods, Dr. Kaplan presented the process on how to grow an animal/insect tissue for food consumption. A picture was shown where a tissue/stem cell is taken from a cow, then immersed in a culture medium and allowed to proliferate.   These cells are then expanded in the laboratory and differentiated in muscle and fat. Dr Kaplan showed a sample muscle bundle that forms from the cells that was isolated from a cow. He explained further that the challenge is to scale the cell isolation and create a structured meat or protein- rich food that people want to eat. He said that this is now being addressed at a reasonable cost.

The second half of Dr. Kaplan’s presentation deals with Entomoculture, a branch of cellular agriculture concerned with growing insect tissue.  Entomo is coined from Entomology (the study of insects), and making foods from insects is the process of culturing meat in vitro.  

Dr. Kaplan also mentioned that some companies are now making insect flours where insects are cooked and ground in flour and use as a nutritional supplement.

As Dr. Kaplan explain the procedure, he presented a sample of Entomoculture using a tobacco hornworm’s muscle fiber.

He also made a comparison between mammalian cells against insect cells cultivation in terms of cost and nutrition. Livestock cells are more costly but comparable with the insect cells in terms of nutrition. He also showed a sample of a 25- day culture inside their laboratory wherein the livestock cells died after 25 days while the insect’s cells remain alive. This means that livestock cells need to be processed from time to time within the span of 25 days making it more laborious and requiring high maintainance.

In summary, Entomoculture is mainly focused on exploring insect cells as a sustainable food source. Insect cells are more favorable (as opposed to “traditional” meat cell sources) because they: (1) can be grown in near- room temperature, reducing the energy needed for heating incubators and media, (2) are more resilient and adaptable to changing conditions when compared with mammalian/avian cells, thus avoiding tight process control requirements, (3) some cell lines can transition between adherent and suspension cultures to support scale up options, and (4) they have simpler media requirements when compared with traditional cell sources, likely resulting in lower costs. These factors are being considered in the discussion in the context of cellular agriculture as a growing enterprise, along with the health and safety aspects of the technology. #