Q: What is fungal mycelium, and why is it a good base for cell-cultured meat?
WEE: Mycelium is essentially the roots of fungi, or fungal highways that absorb nutrients and help them grow. It’s a good platform for cell-cultured meat because it looks like meat fibers and it’s a strong anchor for muscle cells. It’s low-cost—you can grow it in 24 hours.
Q: So you add animal muscle cells to the mycelium?
WEE: Yes. If you’re making cell-cultured chicken, you would in principle take a biopsy from a chicken muscle. If it’s beef, you would take it from beef cattle. You then grow the cells in a bioreactor, which is like a fermenter. The fungal mycelium provides the fibrous texture that resembles meat; the muscle cells provide the taste of chicken or beef.
Q: Obviously, lab-grown meat is different from current meat substitutes out in the market.
WEE: Most meat substitutes are plant-based—made from soy, rice, pea protein—and often they don’t really taste like meat. One of the pluses of the cell-cultured meat is that it would taste like meat. That does bring up socio-religious questions for many consumers: You’re not slaughtering animals, but you are using their muscle cells, so does it make the meat halal or kosher?
Q: Cell-cultured meat is said to be a sustainable alternative to traditional livestock agriculture. How so?
WEE: Cell-cultured meat should not be viewed as a replacement of conventional livestock. When we can make meat like this, we’d be ready with high-quality sources of protein in the event of a disaster that could wipe out our lands or our animals. Also, data shows that if you reduce meat consumption even by a little bit, you can make a change in greenhouse gases.
Q: Does cell-cultured meat have other advantages?
WEE: When you’re making meat in a bioreactor, you can tailor the nutrition to suit the needs of a population. For example, if there’s a vitamin deficiency, or a micronutrient that’s missing in our diet, you could put that in. You could decrease cholesterol in meat and have “better for you” meat with the protein. There’s also discussion on antimicrobial resistance. For example, if there’s an avian flu that impacts livestock birds, we could still produce cell-cultured chicken.
Q: Is cell-cultured meat commercially available?
WEE: Not widely yet. The United States Department of Agriculture recently announced the green light for two companies that are producing cell-cultured meat: UPSIDE Foods and GOOD Meat.
Josephine Wee is an assistant professor of food science.