Every other day, Marie Gibbons carefully attends to several clear, plastic flasks in her lab that each contain a shallow layer of red fluid. Suspended in that fluid are living cells biopsied from the muscle tissue of a live turkey. To keep them happy and thriving, Gibbons feeds the cells a concoction of amino acids, vitamins, glucose, sodium bicarbonate, chicken serum, penicillin and other substances, so that they’ll divide and multiply. She’s cultured 75 vials worth so far, each containing at least 5 million cells.
These “little guys,” as Gibbons refers to them, are special. They’re a type of adult stem cell called satellite cells that can be encouraged to develop into muscle. In Gibbons’ ideal future world, she would get these cells to grow into turkey breasts, thighs and drumsticks fit for a Thanksgiving Day feast — all of the meat delectably indistinguishable from the real thing.
She is not alone in her quest. Gibbons and a handful of other researchers around the world are part of a cutting-edge area of technology called cellular agriculture that combines the latest advances in tissue-engineering, material sciences, bioengineering and synthetic biology to make animal products from the cell up. With the right kind of funding and USDA approval, lab-grown turkey meat could be on your plate in five to seven years.
The benefits could be staggering. Growing crops to feed animals and then raising those animals requires a third of the world’s fertile land, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. It accounts for between 43 percent and 57 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to a report from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. In the United States, agriculture uses 80 percent of water available for consumption. Not to mention the pollution from pesticides, the loss of habitat from deforestation, the overuse of antibiotics and the health concerns from bacterial contamination.
Cultured meat would require substantially less land and water, would produce far fewer emissions and pollution and wouldn’t require pesticides or antibiotics. With the world’s population expected to grow to 9 billion by 2050, finding new ways to feed people will be critical.
For Gibbons, though, it’s about the animals. She grew up on a hobby farm in North Carolina, where the animals were like pets and a part of the family. As a teenager and through college, she worked for different veterinarians treating animals on small farms, many which were animal-welfare approved.
“As someone who cared deeply about animals and also liked science, I always wanted to be a vet,” she said.
But over time, Gibbons found herself questioning the living conditions that farm animals faced. Even though these smaller farms took better care of their animals than large, factory operations, the farmers still castrated bulls without pain medicine, burned off the horns on baby goats and separated mothers from their young.
The breaking point came with a cow that had developed a severe case of pink eye, an infection that could spread to the brain and kill it. Because the farmer could not afford to have the cow transported to the hospital for surgery or euthanize the animal, the vet had to cut out the eye while she was still conscious.
“It was a real life horror movie,” Gibbons told Seeker. “That weekend, I was supposed to go skiing with my family, but instead I stayed home and cried.”
She knew then that she could never become a vet. But by then, she’d heard some things about cultured agriculture, and decided to pursue it.
“As an in vitro meat scientist, I could save billions of animals,” she said.
She wasn’t exaggerating. According to the USDA, 230 million turkeys are slaughtered annually in the United States, compared to 29 million cows and 111 million pigs. Chickens are slaughtered at a rate of 9 billion per year. (Creating lab-grown chicken meat is also a possibility for Gibbons.)
Gibbons reached out to New Harvest, a nonprofit in New York City that’s working to accelerate research in cellular agriculture. After applying and meeting with the firm’s CEO, Isha Datar, Gibbons received a grant for nearly $120,000 to do research at North Carolina State University with Dr. Paul Mozdziak, a professor of poultry science. Mozdziak has more than 25 years experience working with avian cell cultures and had developed a module for large-scale culturing of animal cells in bioreactors.
“She’s excited about what she’s doing,” Mozdziak said about Gibbons. “She had a dream and she’s able to follow through on it. She’s brought a lot of excitement back to me in terms of my research.”
Avian cells are ideal for cultured meat, Mozdziak said, because they’re much easier to direct toward meat production than other kinds of cells, like those from cows or pigs.
Six months into her master’s degree, Gibbons is focused on the foundations of this research, building a large bank of satellite cells that she and other researchers can use for experiments. The work involves not only culturing the cells and encouraging them to proliferate but keeping them in their “immortal” state — the state before they differentiate into muscle cells. If allowed to grow for too long, the cells begin to change into muscle and at that point, they become useless for experiments.
“There’s an art to the biology,” Mozdziak said, “Marie is working on the art.”
Once Gibbons has about 5 million cells, she puts them into cryogenic suspension to be revived later on for experimentation.
Gibbons is also working on growing some of the cells into meat, using a couple different approaches. One involves growing the cells in a bioreactor, which is essentially a beer keg-size vat where scientists can add the right ingredients necessary for healthy tissue growth and then control the environment. The satellite cells would be encouraged to grow into tubular structures that eventually become muscle fibers.
The end product would look, feel and taste just like meat grown from an animal. Because they cells grew in a way similar to how they develop in nature, there would be no difference in their biological makeup.
Making this process more efficient is one of her goals. At the moment, the serum she feeds the cells is made from chicken blood. But it would take more than 100 chickens to make five pounds of turkey.
Obviously that’s counterproductive,” she said. The goal is to develop plant-based serums — and they exist — that the turkey cells like.
Growing the cells in a bioreactor is also a challenge. Muscle cells like to anchor to something — think tendons — as they develop. In the world of tissue engineering, that anchor is called a scaffold. But it’s generally derived from an animal and that defeats the purpose. Gibbons would like to use plant-based scaffolding.
That’s where Natalie Rubio comes in. She is the first Ph.D. candidate in the first cellular agriculture graduate program in United States, at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. The program is also supported by New Harvest.
“Marie is working on growing a lot cells before they differentiate,” Rubio said. “We want a framework for them to follow.”
Rubio explained that a scaffold could be one of three things. It could be an edible sponge-like material that would contribute to the taste and texture of the final meat. It could be sponge-like but degrade overtime so that when the muscle cells were done developing, the scaffold would be gone. It could also be an inedible structure that would serve as something the cells grew on, similar to a bone.
Some plant-based materials that might work well including cellulose from plants, the threadlike part of mushrooms called mycelium or the filamentous parts of algae. But the trick is getting them to stick to the surface.
Getting the public to accept eating lab-grown food may take a little magic, too. Early in November, New Harvest partnered with the Environmental Law institute to study what people think about engineered food. The study will organize several focus groups over the next few months with results available in early 2017.
“There’s a plethora of research that needs to be done before this can be a conceivable reality,” Gibbons said.
It could be several years before lab-grown turkey meat is on your table, but the future is moving in that direction.
“The environmental issues, the health issues and definitely the growing population and the lack of protein are also ridiculously huge issues,” said Gibbons. “If we don’t have an environment, then it’s not just the animals that suffer, everyone is screwed.”