Carst and Walker

The secret sauce of test-tube fish

Lab-grown meat is still weird. This tiny startup thinks it can get around the problem that bedevils every producer of protein alternatives, whether made from soybeans, peas, or cultured animal cells. [Great layman read on this intriguing topic. Ed]

Most people who follow food are aware that scientists and tech companies are trying to grow meat in labs. When they’ll see it and what it will look and taste like — those are details mysterious even to the companies that plan to make them.

But a different kind of protein is on the way — or at least, residing in numerous test tubes. Two young biology grads are working to create in-vitro fish fillets through their startup, called Finless Foods.

“We want to recapitulate every single thing on a dinner plate,” says Brian Wyrwas, 24, one of the two founders. “The sound, sizzle, smell, and consistency of a fish fillet.”

They think they can make it happen late in 2019, a large claim in a lab-grown protein field already full of big promises. But Wyrwas and Mike Selden, 26, his co-founder, have set their sights on producing the big kahuna (it’s irresistible) — bluefin tuna, one of the world’s most threatened and charismatic species, and just the kind of bait likely to draw right-minded, sushi-loving-but-guilty-about-it Bay Area venture capitalists.

So far the founders appear to have the pursuit of in-vitro fish largely to themselves, and claim a number of advantages over their meat-minded rivals.

Brian Wyrwas, (left) and Mike Selden are co-founders of Finless Foods.

One is lower production costs: culturing fish cells can take place at room temperature, they say, as opposed to the electricity-chomping body-heat temperature needed for culturing meat. Once they hit on the right cells to culture and the way to “brew” them, they will outsource some jobs to other startups, ones that are culturing cells for organs to transplant and using 3-D printers to do it.

Wyrwas and Selden can find such startups alongside them at IndieBio, the San Francisco incubator that first provided a growth medium to a lab-grown meat startup, Memphis Meats, several years ago. When I visited IndieBio this summer, it seemed to function just as its investors intended — as a place where white-coated techs trade notes and techniques at benches beside each other.

IndieBio calls itself the “world’s largest biotech seed company,” and gives competitive $250,000 grants for four months of intensive work culminating in a “demo day” where investors gather to evaluate works in progress and see if they want to invest in the next stages. On September 14, Selden and Wyrwas will have their demo day.

About this time last year, Selden and Wyrwas, who had met as undergraduates at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, were both in New York City, Selden working on personalised cancer treatments in a fly-genomics lab at the Icahn School of Medicine, and Wyrwas working on tumor cell culturing at Weill Cornell Medical College.

They would meet regularly for drinks. They are both environmentalists and either vegan or vegetarian, and they got to talking about overfishing and the antibiotic resistance, heavy-metal content, and ocean-pollution hazards of aquaculture. Not to mention the slave labour for Thai shrimp production. So there was a market opportunity.

One night at a bar they wrote a plan on the back of a napkin for how they would experiment with fish cells — which cells, which growth media — and mapped out experiments to make scalable culturing possible.

Everything wrong

The first round of advice the pair got showed them, Wyrwas says, that the bar napkin was “mostly wrong”. Which parts? “Just, like, everything.”

Lab techniques Wyrwas had learned for muscle cells didn’t work with fish as he thought they would. So he shifted focus to stem cells responsible for muscle regeneration after injury, which can be cultured outside the fish and then “pushed” to mimic fish muscle by depriving them of nutrients.

When we spoke, Wyrwas had already tried working with bass, bronzino, white carp, tilapia, and anchovy cells, and the next day would be momentous: bluefin tuna. Getting cells from various fish had been a matter, he said, of lining up secret bluefin sources, and asking the nearby San Francisco Aquarium, on Pier 39, which fish “happened to die lately.” (Cells from an animal either still alive or recently dead are both viable; the trick is putting them into a growth medium before they die.)

Meat-culturing companies brag that only one duck, or lamb, must sacrifice its life for generations of ethical new-wave carnivores to satisfy their desires; Finless Foods might someday claim that a few bluefin died to save the species.

Meat grown in labs, or mocked up with vegetable proteins, has so far gotten the attention and publicity — not fish. Modern Meadow and Memphis Meats, the two leading contenders to be first on the market with lab-grown meat, have been VC-money magnets for several years. (Maybe in-vitro companies need to have “M” for “meat” in every word of a brand name.)

Cargill, one of the world’s largest meat producers, recently invested in Memphis Meats, joining Bill Gates and Richard Branson, among many others. Gates has also backed Beyond Meat, which produces plant-based burgers and chicken strips that are already in mass distribution.

Tyson, the chicken titan, bought five percent of the company, which in theory should be a direct competitor, and put $150 million in a venture capital fund to develop new plant-based meat alternatives.

Pretty much every Silicon Valley zillionaire wants to free the world from the mass slaughter of animals and the environmental havoc it causes. It’s a goal Nobel-competitive molecular biologists, tech entrepreneurs, earnest vegans, environmentalists, and venture capitalists are all working toward.

But growing edible, affordable meat in test tubes and scaling it to feed-the-world proportions is far from a done deal. It’s one thing to replicate a cell in a test tube. It’s another thing to grow that cell by the millions and find a way to connect the micro-thin cell layers to cells grown to mimic muscle, cartilage, bone, and skin.

The framework, like lines of hydroponic seedlings, needs to be connected to a sluice that will deliver the warm bath of nutrients cells need to stay alive. If the transport system is too slow, or doesn’t reach every cell, chunks of cell-grown meat can die. Consumers will have trouble enough with the idea of in-vitro meat. They don’t want to worry about gangrene.

These are only a few of the reasons in-vitro meat is taking a very long time…… Read the full article

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