A translated article from La Stampa, 26/03/2015.
An Israeli non-profit is setting its goal for an economic mass scale production of chicken.
The production of cultured chicken cells is set to satisfy the need for food security within the poultry industry, and the growing global demand for meat. To this purpose, Amit Gefen, a bioengineer at Tel Aviv University, has teamed up with the non-for-profit Modern Agricultural Foundation, and together they have started a feasibility study with this futuristic project in mind.
How will cultured chicken be achieved?
My field of study is tissue engineering, and in this specific project my team and I will be cultivating and stimulating cells using various technologies, with the target of creating tissues that are destined to grow. Eventually we want to be able to create an entire piece of chicken starting from one single cell. That's why tissue engineering is the decisive way. If we succeed in creating chicken, we can try to repeat the process with beef.
Does this technique hold common elements with cell cloning?
Absolutely not. It has nothing to do with genetic reproduction. Our technique is based on biological engineering. The plan is to cultivate chicken cells, making them divide and multiply. Previously, in some studies that have been performed, we used factors extracted from tumors in order to stimulate the cells but this method is not suitable for food production. What we are currently working on is finding and testing other efficient stimulators.
How did this research start?
About four months ago representatives from the Modern Agriculture Foundation approached us to examine a possibility of forming a task force of researchers in order to create a feasibility study for the mass production of cultured chicken. Their vision differed from previous attempts that have been made to create one single cultured hamburger, and we decided to join forces in working towards their goal.
What is the target of this feasibility study?
To produce low-cost, high quality meat tissues. While high quality is of primary importance, costs also count because if the production of chicken breast in the lab will cost 100,000 dollars, the public will never get to taste it, just like with the Dutch
cultured hamburger, cooked in the University of Maastricht after 5 years of research financed by Google, which exceeded 300,000 dollars.
What will be the impacts of artificial chicken production?
Our production of cultured chicken will have a high positive impact in two main areas. First, in regards to the ethical question of meat production, our cultured production will answer a demand for growing numbers of people who are looking for food that does not exploit and mistreats animals. The second area is the growing global population: given that the demand for meat is expected to be doubled by 2050, and since we are heading towards a global society where billions of people will be eating food products purchased in the supermarket, reaching the public with healthy food at low prices could provide us with means of fighting hunger and malnutrition, especially in developing countries.
A translated article from NRG Israel, by Yael (Froind) Abraham, 2/13/2015, 11:31am
Move over cultured burger: Environmentalists and animal advocates proponents are collaborating with a world renowned specialist in tissue engineering in Tel Aviv University, and are looking for the technology to make this popular cut without causing a single animal suffering.
Six years ago they were hardcore activists in Israel. But, when they heard of Professor Mark Post’s breakthrough research, the activists, motivated by their will to save the world from the destructive meat industry, made a dramatic decision. “Our first thought was to go to the university and study biology, biochemistry or biomedical engineering”, recalls Shir Friedman, spokeswoman and co-founder of “The Modern Agriculture Foundation”. “As we progressed with our studies we began thinking: why should we join existing research instead of promoting innovative research that will focus on goals not yet met? We decided to establish the foundation, raise funds and start new research. The foundation is non-profit and does not wish to compete with any research, but rather works toward a common goal: promotion of research that will give birth to cultured meat.”
Neither Inferior nor Ground
The Modern Agriculture Foundation was established a year ago. Its members, some of them vegetarians and vegans, sat down to think of a project that would be most efficient in lieu of the current catastrophic food system.
“Obviously, no one has an interest in harming the environment or animals”, Friedman clarifies. “I believe that all people want to harm Earth less, but today those who eat meat, have no other way of consuming it. When one realizes that the meat industry is that harmful, one comes to think: Humankind will not switch to a plant based diet. It isn’t a realistic expectation, even though it is an immediate solution. So we are working on bringing people the meat they love without them being required to settle for soy substitutes. Cultured meat is the ultimate solution that allows people to eat the foods they are used to, and still drastically decrease climate change and animal suffering.”
A thorough investigation concluded that chickens and fish are the “most eaten” animals on the planet. MAF’s members chose chicken as the first goal: after all, the national bird of Israel is frozen chicken and they are setting the bar high. Ground meat, hot dogs and such will not satisfy them. The goal is a piece of chicken similar to those we consume today, like drumsticks and chicken breasts.
"The research done on cow cells worked with relatively simple technology”, said Friedman. “If you want a more advanced cut, like a steak or chicken breast, there is need of additional bio-technologies. The ongoing feasibility study is looking for more advanced technologies in order to grow any muscle tissue consumed today, be it from a chicken or otherwise. Another challenge is to find a technology to economize the process, because today there is no real possibility of enjoying the fruits of previous studies.”
The first challenge MAF dealt with was to find a captain for this journey. Professor Amit Gefen was chosen for the task. A leading tissue engineering expert, Gefen is considered an academic star who, at the age of 44, is a Professor in the department of biomedical engineering at Tel Aviv University whose field is the mechanics of cells and tissues. Gefen specializes in the understanding of injuring processes, specifically pressure wounds and cysts in diabetics’ feet. He is also the president of the European pressure wound union, which begs the question- what does all this have to do with a chicken breast we are supposed to eat? Well, to understand the answer one must be patient, because it is sometimes hard to believe how much mechanical and biomedical engineering are connected with agriculture.
"Pressure wounds kill”, says Gefen. “People think that only terminal patients suffer from them, but in reality, so do the young. The actor Christopher Reeve, who played Superman, who received, after becoming disabled, the best treatment money can buy, ended up dying of pressure wounds.”
For years Gefen experimented on rats, he tested the internal stresses applied and documented the damage done to the tissues. These experiments allowed to intelligently plan amputations for diabetics, and to find the correct surface for sitting or lying down for those who are required to be static for prolonged periods of time, like people in wheelchairs or people recovering from surgery. “Up until 10 years ago we used rats but in spite of the grand cause I felt uncomfortable”, explains Gefen. “To hold animals unconscious for hours and injure them to analyze the damage and see how long they last- is tough emotionally. It is one of the ethical dilemmas science faces in general.”
The juiciness is in our hands
Gefen searched for an alternative. In 2007 he flew to Holland and over the course of a year developed, along with local partners, a system to replace the existing model. And lo and behold, the same successfully developed models for pressure wound research are the basis for the technology that will create the first piece of cultured chicken meat. “In order to avoid using rats in experiments, you essentially grow cells in a petri dish and create muscle tissue”, explains Gefen. “First you coax the cells to proliferate to create a large amount, because a piece of tissue contains billions of cells. When a sufficient amount is reached, they need to differentiate, meaning to turn into a bundle of muscle fibers. So we want them to be organized as tissue, not as a cloud of cells. Because for a muscle to perform its function and contract, the fibers need to be arranged in a force producing form. This is not the end of the road, for if every one of the fibers goes in a different direction, we will not achieve our goal.”
“This is where cell stretching technology comes in. At the end of which you get muscle tissue 1 cm long and 2-3 mm thick. Today cells are created by companies who specialize in the field. Researchers thaw some of the cells they got in test tubes, let them multiply, and freeze the others for later.”
In the cultured chicken project researchers hope to reach the point where beakers are replaced by a needle that will “suck” a biopsy of chicken muscle cells. The cells will grow in a culture and will undergo each of the steps Gefen described. With the help of many pieces of muscle fiber, or larger structures that will be developed with a special technique, the first cultured chicken breast will be built. “It’s important to note that it is not genetic engineering”, Gefen clarifies. “In our research, cells are taken from the animal and they assume their own life. We aren’t required to do a thing, much less meddle with the genetic build up of these cells. They will undergo the whole process they go through inside of the animal, only outside, and the animal will continue living.”
As a carnivore I am curious as to whether a piece of chicken built from a muscle cell will be less tasty, it is after all the fat that glazes our steak that arouses the cravings of the masses. Gefen asserts that there is definitely something to look forward to: “Your assertion is right as it pertains to cultured meat today, but our goal is to use tissue engineering to create co-cultures, cultures with different types of cells. In this fashion we will be able to control the texture and diversify it, something you cannot do when you grow a chicken in a coup or a cow in a barn. You can insert fat cells and grow colonies of fat cells within muscles. It isn’t trivial, but the level of juiciness will be in our hands.”
The last sentence outs Gefen, he is no vegetarian. Thrice a week, he confesses, meat is served at his table. “I eat meat and I enjoy it and will most likely continue enjoying it. My motivation for joining the project is environmental and fiscal. You and I go to the supermarket and see each year how we pay more for meat. If the world continues this trend, I won’t be able to afford meat so often, if at all. Look at China, the economy is booming, and is modeled after the USA’s, but if China develops an agricultural and food model similar to the USA’s, the world will cave in. The amount of land and water that would be used and the pollution it will cause are beyond Earth’s capacity. This isn’t my field, but we are witnesses today to masses of people from second and third world countries joining the food culture of the first world, the human population is growing. Maybe we won’t be the ones to suffer, but our children and grandchildren will be. The idea of cultured meat is to give a solution to these concerns, that don’t apply only to vegetarians.”
Satiated Animals and Starving People
There is certainly cause for concern whether you are vegetarian or not. 200 years ago the English priest and economist Thomas Robert Malthus phrased his famed “principle of population”. The principal predicted a dark future: if the number of humans grows exponentially and the amount of resources grows linearly, as Malthus showed in the graph, the only possible result is catastrophe and hunger that will lead to death. While Malthus’s work served as infrastructure to Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and many tried to refute it, the 21st century rolled along.
The advancement of agricultural technology and industrialization created more available food, improved medicare saved millions from death, and for a while it seemed like the doom Malthus envisioned existed only in the minds of fools. But soon enough he was proved right. As of December 2012 7.2 billion people live on our planet, think of how many there will be by 2050. By then, estimates say the demand for meat will double.
For economic reasons, the vast adverse effects of the meat industry on the planet are kept from the public. 12,500 liters of water are needed to create 1kg of meat. 70% of the arable land on the planet is used by the livestock industries, which are also responsible for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions. Not to mention deforestation, water pollution, fuels costs and animals’ intolerable conditions. A 2006 UN report determined that animal agriculture is one of the leading causes of Earth’s climate crisis.
"We have no room on Earth” says Shir Friedman. “We don’t have enough water to quench the thirst of the billions of animals we raise in the meat industry. Enormous quantities of food are created to feed livestock, and that’s the absurdity. There are billions of hungry people around the globe, we could be feeding them. As soon as cultured meat reaches the stores it will be identical to traditional meat, but healthier, with less antibiotics, and most importantly cleaner and cheaper, since production will use less water, energy and manpower. Even if the traditional meat industry persists, there is no reason why someone, out of two otherwise identical cuts, would prefer the one that costs more and is more harmful to the environment.”
What about the food chain? When billions of animals join the ecosystem?
“As a biologist, I am familiar with the food chain and I don’t take it lightly but today we don’t take animals from nature but rather create them by insemination proportionate to demand. What we do is by no means natural, we function parallel to the food chain. By the way, the traditional meat industry is actually the one that causes species to go extinct, eliminating it would let the food chain run naturally.”
When will all this happen? That depends on who you ask. Some estimate that cultured chicken will arrive on the shelves in 10 years, while others say it will take 30. Either way, historically speaking, the revolution is here. “Just like the beginning of every research, my team and I are trying to extract every piece of relevant information from academic literature”, says Gefen. “We refer to the beef project, but not only to studies for this use. Any work ever done in tissue engineering on chicken muscle tissues, is of relevance. The academic mapping is a sisyphean phase, yet essential.” If everything goes as planned the feasibility study will finish by the end of 2015.
The hope is that we will build a “recipe” that will describe in detail how to create cultured chicken- the ingredient, the exact techniques, what new biotechnologies are needed, and how much manpower is needed. “Usually feasibility studies are carried through on private interests and the cards are kept close to the funders”, says Friedman. “On the other hand, we intend to release the knowledge discovered by Professor Gefen to the public, so that more researchers may take the knowledge and use it. And so more projects that hasten the production of cultured meat will begin. Our vision is to reach a state where we can culture all types of animals. So that each time you go to the supermarket, you can chose your tuna, poultry or beef, but with near zero ecological footprint.”
We enter the lab, one of the two dedicated to the research (the other is being remodeled). Naturally the lab isn’t manned yet, but the equipment is ready and set. The chairs are by the work stations, near fume hoods- sterile closets that by using a “wall” of air currents prevent pollutants from entering and prevents secretion of matter. Since the research is sterile, the work will be done within these closets. The cells and the cultures will be put into incubators marked with the number 37, the temperature inside. Inside the incubator, cells will enjoy the dampness and the gas environment they need to perform their job well. A tank of liquid nitrogen is placed by the room, its function is to freeze live cells and create cell inventories that will be used to create cultured chicken meat.
What obstacles can you foresee?
“One of the challenges is to use as little animal derived ingredients as possible, as part of the foundation’s agenda- and still create something you can eat”, explains Gefen. “We grow the cells in a fluid culture comprised partly of serum, a cow blood derivative. Taking it means a calf dies, and so we must find a substitute. We will see if serum is necessary in chicken and if so it becomes a question of proportions- after all, one calf can create a large amount of serum and on the other hand you needn’t raise 50 million chickens for slaughter.”
Another example is collagen, which is used as infrastructure for the cells to create fibers. Today it comes from an animal source. “It isn’t just extracting cells from a chicken, but other biological factors that we must replace. Even if we can’t replace them all, it’s not strictly traditional meat or cultured meat, but something in the middle.” One challenge pertains to the growth factors, natural cocktails that are used in research to coax the proliferation and differentiation of cells. They are produced from cancer tumors, which are rich in these substances.
“I have no problem using these cocktails when I build a muscle tissue model for pressure wounds”, says Gefen, “but you and I won’t eat those, many changes are required in the process, and we will direct our attention at them, certainly in the first two years.” And there is the industrial / economic challenge, perhaps the most significant. While the project stays in the stages of narrow research, when only Sergey Brin, the research’s funder, has enough money to buy a burger, the environmental goal will not be reached.
The X-Ray’s lessons
Till that happens, we can wonder, what will become of the vegetarian-vegan ideology. Will vegans be able to shed this barrier, revolutionize their consciousness and sink their teeth into cultured chicken? Another group will also deal with issues foreign to it, “Kosher Keepers”. How will they deal with meat that looks, smells and tastes like meat but was never a part of an animal. Are we close to the point where they can wish down their chicken with a glass of milk?
Will the waiting period between meat and milk vanish? Will plate separation end?
“There will surely be a debate about whether this product will be kosher meat. I tend towards it being parve, just like gelatin, even from a non kosher animal, is parve”, says Rabbi Yuval Cherlow. “There are so many processes that put distance between the product and its origin, that one cannot detect organic essence to it, and it is definitely considered neither dairy nor meat. For the same reason, I tend to believe there is no significance as to what cell originated such a product, But still, I want to stress that there will probably be much debate over this.”
Will Judaism welcome this project that would prevent great harm to animals?
“This is a phenomenon like no other, where the Halacha has no tradition and there is no official speaker for the Halacha. All of this makes the issue harder to tackle and still some things can be said on the subject. Firstly, there will be great joy when the day that we do not need to use animals so satiate our need comes, and we will also be able to face the new worldwide problem of food shortage. On the other hand, we must be careful of such drastic changes to nature. Experience teaches us that sometimes it takes years to discover the cost of these changes, such as Roentgen photography, and so one must be careful. This is not necessarily the position of the Halacha, but those faithful to it are weary of dramatic changes and prefer to tread lightly.”
Is this a concern of projects such a cultured meat, who do not involve genetic engineering?
“It is true that it is not a GMO, but it is engineered food. The Halacha will encourage baby steps, due to the huge positive prospects and on the other hand, its experience that teaches that it is hard to foresee the significance of every process.”
Is it possible we are approaching the vision of vegetarianism from a newfound angle?
“Here too I am weary. We are scarred over history by periods in which we thought we convinced a certain process would bring redemption. But we must rejoice at this step, even if it is far from the vision.”