Ongonig Projects - towards large-scale cellular agriculture

Supporting one person’s demand for beef is known to be 40 times more resource intensive than producing the equivalent amount of crops required. Even though meat production already utilizes 70% of world’s agricultural land, the demand for meat is rapidly increasing due to population growth and dietary change.

Emerging and industrialized economies alike are placing a heavy toll on the environment with factory farming activities contributing heavily to deforestation, water shortage and climate change. The resulting food supply insecurity is already being felt by general consumers in certain resource-poor countries.

To resolve these issues and defend our world’s rich culinary cultures, citizen scientists of Shojinmeat Project develop DIY-bio clean meat recipes and other cellular agriculture product prototypes by open source while spin-off startups (the first being Integriculture Inc.!) help bring the recipes to industrial scale.

The biggest technological hurdle in the muscle cell culture making process, as well as scaling this technology, is cost.

To this end, Shojinmeat Project currently focuses on developing cheap culture medium and making the cell culture process more efficient.

Left: Aggregate of muscle cells cultured in our low-cost culture medium

Right: Cultured meat prepared by student volunteers - ...overcooked.

Recent progress

Liver cells is also a food ingredient, but compounds secreted by liver cells are known to help muscle cell culture. However, conventional culture media needed to culture 100g of liver cells costed ~$400,000. Such extreme cost is also hindering research in stem cell therapy and regenerative medicine.

 

We have reduced this cost to ~$4000 by culturing in a system that mimics in vivo process. By also using our serum-free medium, we may have further reduced this figure to $600. We are currently checking the reproducibility, repeatability and such.

We are also experimenting on the ultimate goal - muscle cells. Some of the results were published in a "fanzine" booklet written by our student volunteer.

Making culture media cheap

 

Much of the current cost of cultured meat (~$100/g) comes from culture media. We currently target to reduce this by triple digits. It is clear that such figure is unattainable if we rely on minor improvements to current method. A radically different approach is needed.

Standard cell culture media consists of essential media, foetal bovine serum (FBS), and growth factors. FBS is expensive and also susceptible to contamination with CJD prions. An FBS-free medium is desirable, or needed.


Our preliminary investigation between Aug.-Oct. 2015 demonstrated the effectiveness of our serum-free medium. This alone has cut the cost to 1/6. We are aiming for further cost reduction by using alternative essential medium and making growth factors cheap or even unnecessary. 

Efficiency improvement

Cultured meat production needs efficient muscle cell culture process.

Conventional cell culture use petri dishes where cells grown in one layer on the flat bottom. If one can culture cells in the height direction too through the use of a cellular "scaffold" containing micron-sized porus structures, the efficiency may multiply more than 100-fold. Such is called "tissue engineering".

The most immediate application of tissue engineering is medicine, but it can be used to construct meat texture. The scaffold can give texture too - a soft scaffold material makes soft texture, and hard scaffold for hard texture. We believe these methods would give culinary diversity to cultured meat.

"Shojinmeat Project" aims to make cultured meat cheaper by 4~5 digits, by combining the above two - cheap culture media and efficiency improvement.

"Cellular agriculture" falling between medical science and food science (image courtesy of New Harvest)

Public communications

"Cultured meat" has 2 pressing issues. One is "cellular agriculture" not being established as a discipline, and the other is religious and cultural uncertainties.

 

"Cellular agriculture" mean production of agricultural products by cell culture technology. The closest existing analogues are beer, yoghurt, soy sauce and other "bioengineered" food products. The only difference is that "cellular agriculture" would use cell culture to obtain raw ingredient.

The problem is, cell culture technology is mostly found in medical field and not in food industry. The entire field of cellular agriculture is trapped between medicine and food science, without recognition, expert or research funds. 

For religious and cultural uncertainties, the debates are already on due to cultured meat's huge potential impact on culinary culture and life ethics. Starting from Vedic period India in 1500 B.C., civilizations in Asia have long been engaged in philosophical questions of eating meat. "Shojinmeat Project" may potentially fit in the context of this long philosophical quest. 

"Shojinmeat Project" will continue to establish "cellular agriculture" as a discipline and engage in public communications over "food by cell culture."

Who's funding? 

"Shojinmeat Project" is currently self-funded. Although not 100% sufficient, we have some income from our art division "SCIGRA", which produces scientific visual contents, such as illustrations, rendering, video and 3D models for visual, VR/AR and 3D printing applications. SCIGRA's service is primarily in Japanese, but we take orders in English language too (We have a number of past works in English with foreign research staff in Japan.). Please support "Shojinmeat Project" through placing orders in "SCIGRA".

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