In our video conference chat, Yuki Hanyu is almost matter of fact as he explains to me the steps involved when growing your own lab meat (or clean meat, whatever you want to call it) at home. It involves a fertilized chicken egg, dry ice, a centrifuge and an incubator. His English is a little broken, but his instructions are so clear I pause to wonder, “Well, why aren’t I growing lab meat in my kitchen?”
While the idea of cultivating lab-grown meat in your garage may sound like the beginnings of some 1980s B-movie, there are actually groups of people working on just such endeavors — and Hanyu is connecting them online with the Shojinmeat Project.
Hanyu, who has a PhD in Chemistry from the University of Oxford, started Shojinmeat in 2014 as part of his mission to democratize cell agriculture, including cell culture technology. Based out of Tokyo, Shojinmeat is now an active Slack channel that connects roughly 30 DIY citizen scientists from across Japan. They gather to talk about their homegrown meat experiments and related topics such as tissue engineering, animal welfare, and regenerative medicine. Shojinmeat has also put out ‘zines with articles and pictures about their work, and recently made a move to the West by creating an English-speaking Slack channel.
When you think of lab-grown meat, you probably think of–you know–a lab, with pristine white countertops, glass walls, and beakers gurgling. And if you know your way around lab meat, you may also know that the most common form of cell media is fetal bovine serum (FBS), which comes from slaughtered cow fetuses. You may wonder how everyday people would get their hands on such a thing, which is difficult to produce and therefore very expensive.
According to their presentation deck, Shojinmeat has done away with FBS altogether, using yeast extract as a cheaper, plant-based media, oftentimes supplemented with egg whites for necessary growth factors.
The homegrown meat process starts with a fertilized egg which, at least in Japan, is available at the local supermarket. Without getting too graphic, you incubate that egg for a dozen days, crack it open and extract your cells from the fetus inside.
Now those cells need to multiply. Historically, according to Hanyu, the biggest barrier to homegrown meat has been contamination. In order to multiply, meat cells need to be incubated at 38.5 degrees Celsius with 100 percent humidity — which happens to also be the perfect temperature for mold. Hanyu says that the egg whites make more common culture media mold-resistant.
Finally, to give the meat structure, Hanyu adds konjac, an East Asian plant, which the meat cells glom on to, adding depth. After incubating for a week to ten days, you will have a visible amount of meat growing!
Hanyu likens DIY lab meat enthusiasts to homebrewers, saying “They grow yeast cells, we grow meat.” While people in the Shojinmeat group have been successful growing meat, Hanyu didn’t mention anything about its taste during our chat.
But Hanyu is no mere enthusiast. In 2015 he spun out Integriculture, an ambitious startup that he hopes will create a “general purpose large-scale cell culture system.” He’s assembled a team of scientists and Hanyu says the company has already patented its core concept. But with Integriculture, Hanyu is thinking beyond meat (no pun intended), and even beyond our own planet.
In the short term, Integriculture won’t even make meat. Instead, it will use its cell growing technology to create customized products for cosmetics and supplements companies. Hanyu is vague on details, but says he’s been talking with potential customers who are interested in Integriculture’s general purpose cell growth capabilities across a wide array of applications.
Further out, the company plans to create a clean meat infrastructure that it could license out to other companies. Which means you probably won’t see Integriculture meat on the store shelves; instead, Integriculture’s process will be used to create meat that will be branded and sold by other companies.
Eventually, and this was where Hanyu’s straightforward demeanor gave way to something altogether more animated, Integriculture wants to create a clean meat facility that could be used on Mars. “We’re sci-fi freaks!” he said, beaming.
When asked what makes his company different from other players in the lab-meat space, such as Memphis Meat and SuperMeat, Hanyu says that Integriculture’s technology is more general purpose. In addition to meat, Integriculture has proven that it can grow foie gras (liver), and Hanyu says they can also grow other types of cells, such as pancreatic cells (though in our talk he did not mention any pharmaceutical applications).
Hanyu said that Integriculture is currently closing a ¥300,000,000 ($2.7 million USD) round of funding. While the company has space age dreams, cultured meat has the potential to make a big impact right here on Earth by providing a more eco-friendly and safer source of animal protein to the planet’s growing population.
Until lab meat becomes more mainstream, however, Shojinmeat will be growing its own culture of DIY enthusiasts who create their own meat at home. Will you be among them?