Scientists Achieve Endless Supply of Cultured Meat through Immortal Stem Cells

by Santiago Fernandez
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cultured meat production

Caption: Differentiated immortalized bovine stem cells with fully expressed muscle proteins (blue = nuclei; magenta = myogenin; green = myosin). Scale approx 1 mm. Credit: Andrew Stout, Tufts University

To overcome the challenges of producing large-scale cultured meat, scientists have made a significant breakthrough by developing immortalized bovine muscle stem cells (iBSCs). These cells possess an extraordinary ability to divide hundreds of times, potentially indefinitely, offering a potentially unlimited source for cultured meat production.

In a recent publication in the journal ACS Synthetic Biology, researchers at the Tufts University Center for Cellular Agriculture (TUCCA) detailed their advancements in the field. By utilizing iBSCs, they have eliminated the need for repeated animal biopsies, enabling widespread access and allowing for the development of new products by researchers and companies worldwide.

The production of cell-cultured meat necessitates muscle and fat cells with a high capacity for growth and division. While there have been notable examples, such as the FDA’s preliminary approval of cultured chicken and a hamburger grown with mastodon DNA, the cost and scalability of these products remain challenging.

Conventional muscle stem cells typically divide only about 50 times before their viability declines, limiting their potential for substantial meat production. In contrast, the immortalized cells created by the TUCCA team offer several advantages. Firstly, they hold the promise of generating significantly larger quantities of meat.

Moreover, the widespread availability of immortalized cells lowers the barriers for other researchers to explore cellular agriculture. This accessibility will facilitate cost reduction efforts and the resolution of challenges related to scaled-up production.

The transformation of regular bovine muscle stem cells into immortalized bovine muscle stem cells involved two key steps. Firstly, the researchers engineered the cells to constantly rebuild their telomeres, the protective caps at the ends of chromosomes, thus maintaining the cells’ “youthful” state for replication and division. Secondly, the cells were modified to continuously produce a protein that accelerates the cell division process, resulting in faster growth.

Although muscle stem cells are not the final product intended for consumption, they need to differentiate into mature muscle cells that closely resemble those found in traditional meat cuts. The research team observed that the new stem cells did differentiate into mature muscle cells, although not identical to natural or conventional bovine muscle cells.

The taste and texture replication of natural meat require further exploration, as the cells are doubling at a rapid rate and may require additional time to reach full maturity.

Addressing concerns about the safety of ingesting immortalized cells, the researchers emphasized that, by the time the cells are harvested, stored, cooked, and digested, they become inert material without any potential for continued growth. Similar to natural meat, the cells provide delicious taste and a wide range of nutritious benefits.

The study received funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about cultured meat production

What is the potential benefit of using immortal stem cells in cultured meat production?

Using immortal stem cells offers the potential for an endless supply of cultured meat. These cells possess the ability to divide hundreds of times, potentially even indefinitely, allowing for large-scale production without the need for repeated animal biopsies.

How do immortalized bovine muscle stem cells contribute to the advancement of cellular agriculture?

The development of immortalized bovine muscle stem cells (iBSCs) by researchers enables easy access to these cells, eliminating the need for researchers and companies to repeatedly source cells from farm animal biopsies. This accessibility promotes further exploration, cost reduction, and overcoming challenges in scaled-up production of cultured meat.

What are the advantages of using immortalized cells for meat production?

Immortalized cells offer several advantages for meat production. Firstly, they can potentially produce significantly larger quantities of meat compared to conventional muscle stem cells. Additionally, by making immortalized cells widely available, the barrier of entry for researchers in cellular agriculture is lowered, facilitating innovation and progress in the field.

How are the immortal stem cells created?

The transformation of regular bovine muscle stem cells into immortalized bovine muscle stem cells involves two key steps. First, the cells are engineered to constantly rebuild their telomeres, which are protective caps at the ends of chromosomes. Second, the cells are modified to continuously produce a protein that accelerates the cell division process, promoting faster growth.

Are immortalized cells safe to consume?

By the time the immortalized cells are harvested, stored, cooked, and digested, there is no viable path to continued growth. Similar to natural meat, the cells become inert material without any potential for further replication. Thus, consuming immortalized cells poses no safety concerns, as they are expected to provide delicious taste and a range of nutritious benefits.

More about cultured meat production

  • Tufts University Center for Cellular Agriculture (TUCCA): Website
  • ACS Synthetic Biology: Journal Article
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture: Website

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