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Wild proteins, raw materials, and supply chains: the challenges for scaling the cultivated meat industry

September 1, 2023

Mass market adoption of cultivated meat will be built upon a comprehensive supply chain of affordable and scalable growth media feedstocks that alleviate critical dependencies and meet important regulatory standards.

A critical challenge to scaling cultivated meat is the cost and scalability of growth factors. However, the sector also has to overcome issues like:

  • Food-safe production and certification
  • Performance of growth factors across species
  • Biophysical constraints, such as thermostability

Bioengineered proteins present a possible solution.

Designing new growth factors to target production efficiency, potency, and cross-species functionality can overcome the limitations of existing growth factors that are a bottleneck for cultivated meat production.

What are the limitations of growth factors for the cultivated meat industry?

In nature, “wild-type” growth factors have a short lifespan.

When used in cultivated meat production, however, this characteristic of growth factors causes challenges in maintaining a stable growth environment for cells.

Protein engineering offers a solution, in the form of growth factors specifically enhanced for industrial use. Engineered growth factors can last longer, for example, to increase production efficiency and enable scalability of the cultivated meat industry.

In the coming years, protein engineering will play an important role in the scale-up of the industry.

Proteins are complex molecules that play vital roles in organisms.

They are critical for many cellular processes and are required for the structure, function and regulation of the body's tissues and organs.

A protein consists of one or more chains of amino acids, whose sequences are determined by the DNA sequence of corresponding genes. So, the DNA sequence of the gene determines the amino acid sequence, which in turn determines both the structure and the functionality of the protein.

Many proteins used for producing cultivated meat have a signalling function. For example, they stimulate cells to replicate, which is the basis of growing a small volume of cells into a large volume, for consumption.

For this reason, these particular proteins are called growth factors.

In nature, growth factors are involved in signalling cascades that promote tissue repair, wound healing, and overall tissue development.

The cultivated meat industry needs to grow cells with a continuous growth stimulus, in a production environment where variables like temperature, acidity and nutrient levels are all controlled.

Every aspect of production needs to be efficient and stable over extended time periods so that cultivated meat can reach price parity with conventionally farmed meat.

Wild-type” growth factors - those that occur in nature, characterized per species by a specific amino acid sequence - are tightly regulated. This means that once their job is done, they’re quickly “switched off”, by stopping their release and breaking down any proteins still in circulation.

As a result, they’ve evolved to be short-lived which makes them inefficient for industrial use and a major cost driver in cell culturing.

A variety of approaches have been used to solve this problem, such as cell line development and recombinant protein production.

So, how does protein engineering help?

Computational protein engineering tools allow us to design new proteins, primarily by modifying amino acids in a protein’s sequence.

By doing this, we can give a protein more desirable traits, such as stability, while retaining important ones, such as its specific function.

The process of protein engineering is a case study example of in silico design coupled to in vitro validation. In plain English, this means we use computational models to develop ideas for new proteins with the desired traits, and then we move to the lab to produce, test and refine the best ideas coming out of the models.

The results can be surprising.

We’ve found that around 70% of the protein sequence can change to deliver the optimised, engineered protein. Without the application of AI models, chained together in a sequence to build and evaluate vast numbers of ideas in silico, this level of structural change and performance improvement might be impossible to achieve.

This way, protein engineering has been used to produce growth factors with greater potency and a longer half-life than their wild-type templates.

Like industrial enzymes, these growth factors are better tools for the job.

They enable more stable, efficient production processes to help bring down the price of cultivated meat.

By using protein engineering for the cultivated meat industry, it is possible to:

  • design growth factors with industrial manufacturing in mind, which means they can be better at doing a specific job in a controlled environment
  • design growth factors to work well across different types of cells - and so be produced at larger volumes - rather than relying on smaller scale, species-specific variants
  • increase potency, which allows use of physically less protein to get the required growth outcomes
  • improve unit economics and manufacturing scalability for cultivated meat producers

Why are a new set of ingredients key for scaling cultivated meat affordably?

As cultivated meat production technology sits between the food and pharmaceutical industries, there is no supply chain designed specifically for scaling the production of cultivated meat.

Without a comprehensive feedstock supply chain, it is not possible for cultivated meat to compete on price with conventionally farmed meat.

Food-grade ingredients will, in general, be cheaper but they may contain impurities that reduce cell growth and functionality.

Maintaining control over ingredients' purity and quality helps minimise variability and ensure consistent and reliable production. However, currently cultivated meat companies often spend significant resources qualifying and then processing new ingredients in-house to demonstrate functionality and food-safety.

On the other hand, pharmaceutical-grade ingredients typically show higher purity and performance, but these benefits come at a far higher cost.

A pivotal challenge for the cultivated meat industry is finding supply chains with pharmaceutical-grade performance at food-grade prices, to allow for the affordable scale-up of manufacturing.

New ingredients, produced to appropriate standards, are necessary for us to meet this challenge.

How does Multus fit into the picture?

Multus is at the forefront of the sustainable protein transition, pioneering the design and production of novel growth media formulations and ingredients for the affordable scale-up of cellular agriculture.

Our unique platform for growth media optimisation provides unrivalled capabilities in new ingredient discovery and intelligent formulation design, for example, engineering proteins with orders of magnitude improvements in efficiency.

We believe there is a pressing need to design better performing proteins to meet the needs of researchers worldwide. Naturally occurring proteins can impose prohibitive constraints, but using data science together with laboratory automation, we can deliver high performance alternatives that enable a more sustainable food system.

Would you like to talk about protein engineering and the development of new feedstocks for cultivated meat?  Click here to chat with our team


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