Beating the ‘bioreactor bottleneck’ for cultivated meat: Startup grows low-cost, ‘fermentation-free’ growth factors in tobacco plants

By Oliver Morrison contact

- Last updated on GMT

Bright Biotech is using the genetic engineering of plants to supply growth factors for the cultivated meat industry to allow cheaper production
Bright Biotech is using the genetic engineering of plants to supply growth factors for the cultivated meat industry to allow cheaper production

Related tags: cultivated meat, cell cultured meat, cell-based meat, cell-cultured meat, cellular agriculture

A UK-based molecular farming start-up has developed a new genetic engineering method to make lower-cost growth factors from tobacco plants that can be used for cultivated meat production.

Manchester’s Bright Biotech, which has just raised $3.2m in seed funding to accelerate its R&D, says its innovative technology will provide a plentiful supply of growth factors for the cultivated meat industry at a fraction of the current cost.

According to its proponents, cultivated meat is a solution to the increasing demand for animal proteins as the world continues to experience economic and population growth.

Animal factory farming, they contend, is cruel and unsustainable. Cultivated meat, on the other hand, is biologically equivalent to meat from animals. Industrialising it will reverse the harm done to animals, people and the environment and we get to keep the enjoyable, delicious, and nutritious meat experiences.

Growth factors ‘critical to achieving price parity for cultivated meat’

Regulatory hurdles aside (cultivated meat is only on the market in Singapore but has edged one step closer to commercialization in the US​) one of the biggest barriers for the enablement of cellular agriculture is the lack of industrial scale bioprocessing capacity​.

Currently bioreactors are required both to grow animal cells in cultivated meat production, but also to produce the growth factors and other proteins required for the growth media, which are typically produced via microbial fermentation, and right now, there simply aren’t enough bioreactors to go around around.

Recipes vary, and are typically kept as trade secrets, but cells need a growth medium to promote cell differentiation, growth and proliferation in the production of cultivated meat. This contains basic nutrients such as amino acids, glucose, vitamins, and inorganic salts, and supplemented with proteins and other growth factors, which can make up at least 55% of the marginal cost of cultivated meat depending on what cell types firms use.

They can cost several million dollars a gram making them more expensive by weight than diamonds,”​ Bright Biotech Co-founder and CEO Mohammad El Hajj told FoodNavigator. “Up to three tonnes of various growth factors will have to be produced annually for cultivated meat production to scale and gain only one percent of the global protein market. Today, barriers for producing cultivated meat at scale include the very high cost and bottlenecks in the supply of growth factors.”

What’s more, while the aim is to dispense with this, some startups are still using some animal-derived components in their growth medium such as foetal bovine serum (FBS) – controversial because it is obtained from the necks of baby cows in slaughterhouses, and therefore very much at odds with cultured meat’s hope of offering ‘slaughter-free’ food of the future.

Bright Biotech’s solution is to use the genetic engineering of plants (or ‘chloroplast-based expression’ which produces valuable proteins in chloroplasts of plants) to provide a plentiful supply of growth factors for the cultivated meat industry.

This means cultivated meat can be produced at a fraction of the current cost, eventually allowing the sector to scale and reach price parity with conventional meat.

Taking bioreactors out of the equation

The USPs of Bright Biotech's plant-based technology are high yield, lower-cost -- fermentation-free/ no bioreactors or expensive infrastructure needed -- ultra-scalability and sustainability, explained El Hajj.

“We can help cultivated meat companies further reduce the cost of media through guaranteed supply of the growth factors at the quantity, quality and cost required as the industry scales,”​ he said. “Our calculations show that only replacing the commercially available growth factors in animal-free growth media with our plant-made growth factors reduces media cost from $376 to $21.70 per litre and the cost of manufacturing 1 kg of cultivated meat by 17-fold.”

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'Barriers for producing cultivated meat at scale include the very high cost and bottlenecks in the supply of growth factors'. Bright Biotech Co-founder and CEO Mohammad El Hajj

Putting the tobacco plant to positive use

Bright Biotech’s process is animal free, though using growth factors from a genetically-modified source could be controversial, admitted El Hajj. “At Bright Biotech, we produce growth factors identical to native growth factors. Our system removes antibiotic-resistance marker genes and very importantly the newly introduced gene-of-interest does not end up in the pollen adding a containment advantage. Our system is also free of animal pathogen and microbial endotoxins common in fermentation-based technologies.”

The non-food/non-feed crop that the company uses is Nicotiana tabacum (tobacco). One tobacco plant is capable of generating over 10,000 seeds, El Hajj told us. “Tobacco farming is cheaper than fermentation technologies which require expensive bioreactors and infrastructure limiting cost-effective scalability and production capacity especially when yields are very low (<100 milligram per litre of culture). 

“Our system is generally recognised as safe (GRAS). Unlike fermentation technologies, our system does not harbour harmful microbial toxins or animal pathogens. This advantage facilitates and reduces cost of protein purification.

“The system relies on light, water and CO2 to drive expression of protein in chloroplasts and hence our technology is more sustainable than fermentation technologies and has net-zero carbon potential.”

The growth factors could also be applied to a wide range of cells including pluripotent stem cells​, we were told.

Rapid commercialisation hopes

By significantly reducing the price of growth factors, one of the largest cost drivers of the industry, Bright Biotech says it will facilitate and enable the industrialisation of cultivated meat tackling a $116 billion global industry by 2040.

Investors seem to agree. Bright Biotech has just closed an oversubscribed $3.2 million seed funding round led by FoodLabs and including impact investors Big Idea Ventures, CPT Capital, the FoodHack syndicate and business angels. “Our technology is very timely for the cultivated meat industry,” said El Hajj. “We are thrilled to be working with our partners and investors to have the first products from our robust, ultra-scalable and sustainable technology available on the market in 2023.”

Christian Guba, Senior Associate at FoodLabs, added: “Bright Biotech's approach to harnessing chloroplasts for manufacturing growth factors in plants can be a game changer for the cultivated meat industry and will be a key enabler to achieve price parity.”

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