In 2017, a patent assigned to Memphis Meats detailed a way to overcome one of cultured meats biggest obstacles. The startup would use CRISPR gene editing to create a small mutation in their cells. The mutation would inactivate two proteins and ultimately increase “replicative capacity of the modified cell populations indefinitely.” They had transformed unpredictable cells with a limited capacity into hyper-proliferative ones equipped for industrial production.
Longevity and predictability are the obstacles all cultured meat start-ups face in the effort to bring production to scale. Commercial scale cultured meat will require a mass production of cells like no other project to date, but cells in question aren’t inherently capable of that kind of output. After a certain number of replications, the fat, muscle and connective tissue cells max out. They begin to die off or lose control. Left to itself, cultured meat eventually becomes self-contaminating.
CRISPR gene editing offers a work around, a cheap and accurate way to equip stem cells for industrial capacity and consistency. Muscle and fat stem cells that naturally peter out can be edited to divide forever. Induced pluripotent stem cells that easily veer off course can be reprogrammed to exclusively produce muscle cells, fat or connective tissue.
“Technologies like CRISPR allow us to safely increase the quality of our cell growth, which means we will make meat that is tastier, healthier, and more sustainable than slaughtered meat,” Brian Spears, the co-founder and CEO of New Age Meats, told Business Insider last year. Ostensibly, genetic tweaks made using CRISPR could make industrial cell culture faster to market, more predictable, and more cost effective.
But while some start-ups make CRISPR gene editing intrinsic to their process, others are intentionally separating themselves from the technology. They’re concerned that genetically altering their cell lines could lead to regulatory hang-ups — if not in the US or Asia, then in Europe. They’re calling their cultured meat non-GMO.
Whether CRISPR is a GMO has been hotly debated since the technology was first adapted for research from bacterial defense systems. Unlike genetically modified organisms, which have had foreign genetic material inserted into their DNA and been edited in a way that couldn’t occur naturally, CRISPR alters an organism’s own DNA to exhibit the most desirable traits.
“Scientifically I buy that it’s not a GMO,” Paul Mozdziak, a cell biologist at North Carolina State told me via Zoom, “but regulation is often based on more than science.” Mozdziak is also an affiliate of Peace of Meat, a B2B cultured meat company that’s decided against CRISPR. “Our profile is we are not going to do anything that can be construed in any way shape or form as GMO,” Mozdziak said. The same is true of Mosa Meat, a cultured meat elite who produced the first lab-grown burger in 2013. The decision is partly because Mosa is in the European market which doesn’t have a favorable attitude toward CRISPR at all, said Joshua Flack, cell biologist and leader of Mosa Meat’s Stemness & Isolation team. But “It also makes scientific sense. It is a lot of work to engineer your cell lines in this fashion.There’s a lot of ground work in the beginning if you’re using CRISPR and engineering.”
For those that don’t go the CRISPR route, the key is identifying the optimal cell line, finding out exactly what those cells want, and then catering the entire process to them, Flack said. The non-GMO approach is about optimizing the process while CRISPR offers a way to “turn the thing on its head” by genetically optimizing the cell line.
From a scientific standpoint, no one is challenging CRISPR’s potential. Mozdziak called it a “promising technology” for the entire industry and even expects US regulatory bodies to be fairly amenable to the technology. Meanwhile, Mosa Meat has invested in inhouse explorations using CRISPR for R&D purposes. “We have to understand the risks of not employing these strategies,” Flack said. “The potential upside is really massive.”
CRISPR could very well be the fastest and cheapest way to commercial scale, but it’s unclear how much that will matter in the long run. Which process will be first to market or which will be stalled in regulations? These questions are just proxies for the one question that we can’t answer yet. That is, what will people buy–and buy enough to disrupt the meat industry? Maybe this new age GMO debate ends like the last one: both sides proceed so customers have the option. But one thing is for sure, Flack said, “if you can’t sell it at the end, the effort is wasted.”
UPDATE: An earlier version of this article contained a quote from Daan Luining, CTO of Meatable. For administrative reasons, that quote has been replaced with a quote from Brian Spears, CEO of New Age Meats, originally published by Business Insider.