The hunt for the master cow that will feed the world

Patent applications only hint at what companies might be working on, but both Flack and Stout agree that genetically-engineered cells might be the only way to drive down the costs of cultured meat. “I think that getting from $300,000 (£211,000) for a burger to $50 (£35) for a burger is going to be easier than getting from $50 to $2 (£1.40),” Stout says. “I’m not at all confident that, without improving the cells themselves, you can get to $2.”

But why stop at gene-editing cells to make them grow more efficiently? There are all kinds of funky things you could do with engineered cell lines. One idea Stout has is to edit chicken cells so they can express limonene – the oil that gives citruses their fruity aroma – to make lemon chicken at a cellular level. In 2020, he published a study detailing how he inserted three genes into cow muscle cells so they produced antioxidants that mitigate some of the negative effects of eating red meat. Take them out of an animal, and cells could become a blank canvas for new kinds of culinary creativity.
WITHOUT CELL LINES to start with, researchers are having to go it alone. Stout got his cow stem cells from his university’s veterinary school, but not every lab has that kind of access, and even that source of cow stem cells is much less useful than the holy grail: a cell bank of immortalised cow cells that anyone can access.
There are at least 40 companies vying to bring cultured meat to the market – and venture capital funding is pouring in from all angles. Eat Just, which became the first cultured meat company to sell its products in a restaurant after Singapore approved its cultured chicken at the end of 2020, has raised £318 million in funding in 2021 alone. In February, Mosa Meat closed its Series B funding round after securing £59m and a month later another Dutch firm, Meatable, announced it had raised a further £33m.
Cell lines are the secret sauce of the cultured meat industry, so it’s unsurprising that most companies are keeping theirs under wraps. A spokesperson for Eat Just said that the company could not share details about its cell lines for intellectual property reasons. Neta Lavon at Aleph Farms said that the company is working with pre-embryonic stem cells, but that it had no plans to share its cell lines in the short-term. Other cultured meat companies contacted did not make themselves available for interview.
“One of the things I don’t like about the cultured meat industry is how lots of the best research, probably the furthest-advanced research, is all locked up in companies that aren’t saying anything,” says Flack. Swartz says three cultured meat firms have contacted him about taking part in the GFI’s cell line banking project, which lets companies retain their intellectual property, but none of them have deposited cell lines yet. Companies are likely to only use the best-performing cell lines for their meat production, Swartz says, leaving other less developed cell lines unused. “This gives them an opportunity, in my opinion, to share those cell lines at no cost.”In the meantime, companies that specialise in cell lines might fill the gap. Edinburgh-based Roslin Technologies usually produces cell lines for toxicology and drug screening, but now sells pig stem cells to the cultured meat industry. It already has a contract with one cultured meat firm and has evaluation licenses with other companies that are trialling its stem cells. The cells the company is licensing are called induced pluripotent stem cells – cells that have been reprogrammed back into a state where they can develop into many different types of cells. Because this reprogramming doesn’t alter the genetic makeup of the cell they might escape European Union regulations that limit the sale of any genetically modified foods, says Richard Freeman, commercial manager at Roslin Technologies.

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