Culture medium is one of the key building blocks for cell-cultured meat production: In order to grow stem cells into blobs of muscle and fat, you need a nutritious serum to feed and raise the cells.
For most of the nascent industry’s history, fetal bovine serum (or FBS) has been the only viable growth substrate. This reliance on FBS presents a quandary for startups seeking to market their products as ethical and sustainable: The serum is extracted from cow fetuses after slaughtering pregnant cows. FBS is also expensive—an issue for companies seeking to scale down production costs.
To get around the problems of FBS, some of the big names in cell-cultured meat have been developing their own alternative growth mediums. Mosa Meat announced last year that it had converted to a new medium that costs 88 times less than FBS. But there’s also a smattering of growth medium startups developing growth mediums to sell as stand-alone products. Here are some names to know in this space:
1. Multus Media’s Proliferum M serum is formulated with a proprietary mixture of proteins and other ingredients. Designed to facilitate growth for mammalian cells, the serum demonstrates what the company calls universibility: It can support a range of different cell lines.
Multus is currently working with partner companies to test Proliferum M. The company hopes to bring its first product to market later in 2021. (For more on Multus, check out our recent interview with company CEO Cai Linton.)
2. Back of the Yards Algae Sciences manufactures food ingredients like dyes and protein powders—all from algae. The company is experimenting with an algae-based culture medium in their research and development lab, seeking solutions for beef, pork, chicken, and fish cell growth. (And they’ve had some success, as Food Dive reported earlier this year.) Back of the Yards hasn’t yet released details about when their medium might become commercially available.
Seawith, a South Korean company, is also using algae to create culture medium and scaffolding for its cell-based meat products.
3. Biftek is working on a microorganism-based growth medium, although the Turkish startup hasn’t revealed what kinds of microorganisms it’s using. Biftek recently received a financial boost from CULT Food Science, a Canadian investment platform. They’ll use the money to send out culture medium samples to cell-based meat producers and apply for patents.
These aren’t the only serum ideas out there. There’s been some academic research around the use of platelet lysate (a liquid derived from blood platelets) as an alternative culture medium. Agulos Biotech is working on a simulated version of porcine platelet lysate. Driven by the theory that growing muscle cells in blood would produce better-tasting meat, Cultured Blood is developing a substrate of cell-cultured blood.
The cell-cultured meat industry is expected to be worth $248 million by 2026, and many industry leaders believe that cell-based products will reach price parity with conventional meat by then. In order to live up to these expectations, the industry will need to identify sustainable, cost-efficient culture mediums. One of the approaches above might be the key to unlocking more affordable, ethical, cell-based meat.