The future of meat: The tobacco plant?

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

Image: BioBetter
Image: BioBetter

Related tags cell-based meat cultured meat cultivated meat

Israeli start-up BioBetter is repurposing tobacco plants in attempt to overcome the greatest hurdle currently facing the budding cultivated meat industry: scaled production.

Cultured, cultivated or cell-based meat proponents insist this technology is the answer to the challenge of feeding a growing global population without depleting natural resources.

But as numerous cultivated meat start-ups move beyond the proof-of-concept phase, they run against one of the biggest challenges facing this budding industry. Question marks about regulatory approval (only Singapore has approved it so far) and eventual consumer acceptance aside, developing a scalable and cost-effective production platform to make cultured meat affordable for the mass market has proven to be a primary stumbling block.

Cell-derived meat requires a culture medium composed of a mix of amino acids, nutrients, and growth factors without which cells cannot multiply. Currently, such media are costly due to the complexity of producing these growth factors.

Suppliers and manufacturers are currently using various production platforms to produce growth factors. Two such growth factors are insulin and transferrin, which are collected from livestock, making it difficult to obtain large quantities. Others can be attained via fermentation of yeast or bacteria, but those methods require expensive facilities. The purification process also is complicated and expensive.

A near 100-fold reduction in insulin and transferrin costs is required to make cultivated meat economically viable, estimates the Good Food Institute, a non-profit working to accelerate alternative protein innovation. It is further estimated that growth factors and cell-culture media can constitute 55 to 95% of the marginal cost in manufacturing cell-based foods.

Putting the tobacco plant to positive use

This is where the tobacco plant comes in. BioBetter is repurposing tobacco plants to create the growth factors necessary for the cellular development of cultivated meat. It claims this landmark botanical breakthrough could significantly reduce the cost of cultivated meat and advance it rapidly to scale-up.

BioBetter says it has harnessed the inherent advantages of tobacco (or Nicotiana tabacum) ​plants by turning them into bioreactors for expression and large-scale production of the proteins. Plant bioreactors use renewable energy and fixate CO2​. They are self-forming, self-sustaining, and biodegradable. BioBetter uses open-field plantations to enable fast, efficient, and flexible response to market needs.

“There are multiple advantages to using Nicotiana tabacum as a hardy vector for producing GFs of non-animal origin,”​ said BioBetter CEO Amit Yaari. “It is an abundant crop that has no place in the food-and-feed chain due to its extremely bitter taste and content of undesirable alkaloids.”​ The global trend for reducing tobacco smoking meanwhile is also raising concerns among tobacco growers that the crop might eventually become obsolete.

Yet the tobacco plant has huge potential to become ‘a key component in the future of food’, believes Yaari. “Tobacco plants can achieve up to four growth cycles annually and be harvested all year,”​ he said. “This translates to more voluminous outputs per square meter of growing space.”

BioBetter Cultivated Meat with Tobacco Plants
The start-up extracts growth factors for scaled cultivated meat production from tobacco plants. Image: BioBetter

BioBetter’s adds its uniqueness lies in refining and highlighting the advantages of the tobacco plant platform for production on a huge scale. The start-up applies a proprietary protein extraction and purification technology that enables it to exploit nearly the entire plant, and at the same time deliver a high purity product at broad scale production.

The company currently sources tobacco plants from local growers but the goal is to eventually source the raw material from tobacco growers globally. Based on cultivation in open fields and BioBetter’s proprietary purification technology, the cost of growth factors production is dramatically reduced, finally bringing cost efficiency to cultured meat production.

BioBetter, which has so far raised US$5M for its growth factor production platform from private investors, was founded by Professor Oded Shoseyov, a serial entrepreneur and researcher at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Avi Tzur, an industrialist with ‘an avid vision to put tobacco plant to positive use’. One of the company’s first tobacco plant-based creations was the drug Humira​, a monoclonal antibody used to treat autoimmune diseases.

Realising the gap in the supply of Growth Factors for the nascent cultivated food industry, the company shifted its focus to filling that gap. “BioBetter is pioneering a novel protein expression platform to address the fast-growing demand for complex recombinant proteins,”​ noted Shoseyov. “Our Growth Factor technology willenable production of animal-free GFs at a scale of thousands of tons per year, and at a cost of US$1 per gram. This will alleviate one of the biggest bottlenecks in advancing cultured meat to mass production.”

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