Breakthrough in cellular agriculture, a game changer for cultured meat industry

Researchers at Tufts University developed immortalized bovine muscle stem cells for cellular agriculture, potentially overcoming scaling challenges for meat production.
Kavita Verma
Bovine stem cells
Bovine stem cells, which have been immortalized and differentiated to express muscle proteins, are shown here (blue = nuclei; magenta = myogenin; green = myosin). The scale is approximately 1 mm.

Andrew Stout, Tufts University 

According to a recent study that was published in the journal ACS Synthetic Biology, researchers at the Tufts University Center for Cellular Agriculture (TUCCA) have developed immortalized bovine muscle stem cells (iBSCs) that can grow rapidly, divide hundreds of times, and possibly continue to do so indefinitely. These immortalized cells are a significant step toward making it possible for millions of people to be fed through cellular agriculture, which is the process of growing meat in bioreactors.

Currently, it is difficult and expensive to produce cell-cultured meat because muscle and fat cells need to be able to grow and divide rapidly. Normal muscle stem cells can only divide about 50 times before they stop dividing and die. However, immortalized cells developed by the TUCCA team can divide indefinitely, which means they can produce much more meat.

Making these immortalized cells widely available will make it easier and cheaper for other researchers to develop cell-cultured meat, which could help to reduce the environmental impact of meat production.

Key steps in developing immortalized cells

The TUCCA researchers achieved the conversion of normal bovine muscle stem cells to immortalized ones using two crucial methods. Initially, the team genetically modified the bovine stem cells to maintain constant regeneration of their telomeres, which are the ends of chromosomes that tend to deteriorate and suffer damage due to wear and tear. This process helps to maintain the "youthful" state of their chromosomes, allowing them to undergo further replication and cell division. Subsequently, the researchers ensured that the cells produced a protein continuously, which stimulated an essential stage of cell division. This method accelerated the growth process and enhanced the cells' ability to multiply.

Muscle stem cells need to differentiate into mature muscle cells similar to those found in meat products like steak or filet, even though they are not the final product for consumption. While the new stem cells have differentiated into mature muscle cells, they are not exactly the same as animal or conventional bovine stem cells. It is uncertain if they have matured enough to replicate the taste and texture of natural meat, so more research is necessary.

There are concerns about the safety of consuming immortalized cells, but David Kaplan, who is the Stern Family Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Tufts and also the director of TUCCA, states that by the time the cells are harvested, stored, cooked, and digested, they cannot continue to grow. They become inert material that is similar to natural meat and provides numerous nutritious benefits.

Implications for the future of food production

Although the media has focused on cell-grown meat, it remains costly and challenging to expand production. Nevertheless, the discovery of immortalized bovine muscle stem cells is a major breakthrough that could benefit researchers and businesses worldwide by eliminating the need to obtain cells repeatedly from animal biopsies.

Cellular agriculture is a promising approach to address the increasing demand for food production and reduce the environmental consequences of conventional animal farming. The possibility of generating significant amounts of sustainable meat through this technology to feed millions of people worldwide is a thrilling prospect, and it will be intriguing to witness the evolution of this research in the coming years.

The study was published in the journal ACS Synthetic Biology.

Study Abstract: 

For cultured meat to succeed at scale, muscle cells from food-relevant species must be expanded in vitro in a rapid and reliable manner to produce millions of metric tons of biomass annually. Toward this goal, genetically immortalized cells offer substantial benefits over primary cells, including rapid growth, escape from cellular senescence, and consistent starting cell populations for production. Here, we develop genetically immortalized bovine satellite cells (iBSCs) via constitutive expression of bovine Telomerase reverse transcriptase (TERT) and Cyclin-dependent kinase 4 (CDK4). These cells achieve over 120 doublings at the time of publication and maintain their capacity for myogenic differentiation. They therefore offer a valuable tool to the field, enabling further research and development to advance cultured meat.

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