In brief

A*STAR researchers identify opportunities for improvement in the field, including optimised cell culture protocols and inexpensive, food-grade culture components for growing fat cells from agricultural species.

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Bringing cultured fat from lab to plate

24 Feb 2023

Scalable and cost-effective methods for growing fat cells pose a commercialisation barrier for cultivated meat products.

In recent years, we’ve seen seismic shifts in our attitudes towards food. Increasingly conscious shoppers browsing the meat aisles at supermarkets aren’t just looking at price tags−health, ethical and environmental factors are also influencing their choices.

Food producers have responded in kind, and lab-grown meats are set to follow the wave of plant-based meat options that previously flooded shelves. Since the first reports of cultivated meat a decade ago, cellular agriculture technologies for harvesting and growing tissues from livestock have come a long way. Still, there’s a problem standing in the way of restaurant-quality lab-grown meat: fat.

Fat changes the texture, flavour and nutritional profile of meat, but, according to Shigeki Sugii, Principal Investigator at A*STAR’s Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB), it is still challenging to grow fat cells and tissue from agricultural species in the lab.

“Most of the protocols for growing fat cells are for human, mouse or rat cells,” explained Sugii. “Not so many studies were done using cells from agricultural species such as livestock and seafood.”

A generalised scheme of cultivated meat production. Livestock cells are isolated and go through a selection, proliferation and banking process to develop cell lines. Some cells are expanded in bioreactors for scaled-up production. From there, an adipogenic cocktail helps encourage stem cells to differentiate and mature into fat cells. These can be integrated with other cell types, such as muscle or skin, on an edible scaffold to create a final product with meat-like structure and texture.

In a pair of review articles, Sugii’s team took an in-depth look at trends and opportunities in cultivated adipocyte, or fat cell, production, making several key recommendations on pathways to improve the cellular agriculture of alternative fat.

“From our analysis of over 500 studies that grew adipocytes from agricultural species, we found various differences in their experimental protocols,” Sugii said. Notably, fat cells from bovine, porcine, chicken and seafood are unique and require subtle differences in their optimal cell culture conditions.

As Sugii explained, porcine fat cells take about six days to fully mature from stem cells, while adipocytes from other species generally develop over 10 to 12 days. Similarly, chicken fat was the easiest to produce, requiring a growth medium containing only one type of fatty acid, whereas fat from other sources needed more complex chemical cocktails to coax them towards maturation.

Sugii and colleagues singled out cost-effectiveness as a central and crucial factor in ensuring that cultivated fat technologies are commercially viable. In this regard, Sugii pointed out that developing inexpensive food-grade culture media components will be paramount for keeping lab-grown meat costs accessible to most consumers.

“We still rely on many compositions of biomedical grade media that are too expensive to produce,” Sugii said, adding that finding alternative solutions is now a core research focus for the team. “While many companies and researchers have started to tackle with this problem, we would like more efforts and collaborations in this aspect so that we can achieve cost parity comparable to animal meat in the next several years.”

The A*STAR-affiliated researchers contributing to this research are from the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB).

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Sugii, S., Wong, C.Y.Q., Lwin, A.K.O., Chew, L.J.M. Alternative fat: redefining adipocytes for biomanufacturing cultivated meat, Trends in Biotechnology (2022). | article

Sugii, S., Wong, C.Y.Q., Lwin, A.K.O., Chew, L.J.M. Reassessment of adipocyte technology for cellular agriculture of alternative fat, Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety 1-18 (2022). | article

About the Researcher

Shigeki Sugii leads the Laboratory of Fat Metabolism and Stem Cells under the Cell Biology & Therapies Division at the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB). Sugii also holds a joint appointment at Duke-NUS Medical School. Before joining IMCB, he was a Group Leader at A*STAR's Singapore Bioimaging Consortium (SBIC) from 2011-2019 and at A*STAR's Institute of Bioengineering and Bioimaging (IBB) from 2019-2021. Sugii graduated with a B.S. in Agricultural Chemistry from Kyoto University, Japan and received his Ph.D. in Biochemistry at Dartmouth Medical School, USA. He then moved to the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and Howard Hughes Medical Institute, USA to conduct his postdoctoral research with Prof. Ronald Evans. Sugii serves as an executive committee member (Secretary) of the Stem Cell Society Singapore and on several other scientific committees. He was a co-founder of Celligenics Pte. Ltd. and recently founded ImpacFat Pte. Ltd. in Singapore.

This article was made for A*STAR Research by Wildtype Media Group