‘Real’ chicken for vegetarians?

Israeli biomedical engineer Amit Gefen says his plans for a lab-grown chicken breast are just the beginning of a new era in sustainable meat.

Amit Gefen
Amit Gefen

Biomedical engineer Amit Gefen never intended to become a pioneer in food technology, let alone a global leader in creating test-tube chicken meat. But his work in obesity research unwittingly led him down a path he expects will lead to the first steps toward a commercial lab-grown chicken breast by the end of 2015.

It’s a tall order for the Tel Aviv University professor, because concocting a cultured chicken breast is considerably trickier than growing beef in the lab, such as the much-heralded “test-tube burger” unveiled by Maastricht University researchers in 2013. Rather than gathering small fibers of cow muscle into one big chunk of meat, Gefen is trying to make a whole chicken breast—a long-term project to be sure.

Our goal is to use tissue engineering . . . [so] we will be able to control the [meat] texture and diversify it, something you cannot do when you grow a chicken in a coop or a cow in a barn.”
—Amit Gefen

Why a chicken breast? “It’s a popular choice for a main course in many cultures and countries, especially in Israel,” he says. And chicken accounts for nearly a third of the world’s total meat consumption, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

In fact, the urgent need for Gefen’s research is growing in step with the planet’s population. As countries like China emulate Western diets, the global demand for meat protein is expected to double. “We are witnesses today to masses of people from Second and Third World countries joining the food culture of the First World,” says Gefen. “A sustainable food production model should consider the cost of growing livestock for a continuously increasing world population. [Otherwise], clearly at some point the land, water and food resources for the animals themselves will become so expensive that the end product—native meat—will be too expensive for most of the population to consume regularly.”

Cultured meat products, however, hold the potential to decrease—and eventually eliminate—the need to raise livestock, positively impacting limited land use, energy costs and the production of greenhouse gases. A 2011 study by Oxford University and the University of Amsterdam, for example, found that cultured meat would produce 96 percent less greenhouse gases and consume 82 to 96 percent less water than commercially raised livestock.

Engineering a new meat culture

Forty-four-year-old Gefen is well-placed to spearhead the new cultured chicken endeavor, the only one in the world as far as he is aware. With a doctorate in biomedical engineering from Tel Aviv University and a specialty in studying the structure of cells, tissues and organs to prevent acute and chronic injuries, Gefen previously researched how fat cells in the body can get bigger when they’re “wounded” by people sitting or lying in bed for long periods of time. His tissue engineering work on isolating fat cells outside of a live animal subject—to gain more precise control over his experiments, and to move away from testing on animals—caught the attention of the Modern Agriculture Foundation, an Israeli nonprofit that promotes cultured meat.

Inspired by the Dutch lab-grown burger, Koby Barak, head of the Modern Agriculture Foundation, asked Gefen in 2014 if he could apply his tissue engineering research to producing chicken instead of beef in the lab. “Cultured beef is already being investigated in the Netherlands, so there was no point for parallel work,” says Barak, “and cultured chicken breast meat will be more difficult to manufacture technologically . . . We wanted to start and deal with the next challenges of cultured meat.”

While continuing his fat cell and obesity research, Gefen began the initial $25,000 cultured chicken feasibility study in January 2015 and is due to present the foundation with a “recipe” for culturing chicken cells by the end of 2015. One of the challenges, Gefen says, is what to use in the biochemical cocktail that will help grow chicken in a lab environment. “The most common growth factors used in a lab for research are extracted from cancer tumors in animals,” he explains, since tumors grow especially fast. But he doesn’t see this as an option for chicken destined to be food, because he’s betting the public perception would be overwhelmingly negative, even though no research has been done to determine if chicken grown in tumor hormones would be unsafe. Instead, he’s working with growth factors produced from non-cancerous tissues and synthetic growth factors.

Gefen says he’s also determining whether the development of cultured chicken could bypass any use of live animals. The Dutch lab-grown burger, for example, required the use of fetal bovine serum, extracted from cow uteruses.

“I developed these tissue constructs originally in part to use fewer animals in my experiments,” Gefen says. “Tissue engineering wasn’t available when I started, so I had to use animal models [then].” When more sophisticated tissue engineering technology became available in the past decade, though, he became a strong advocate for it.

On the technical end, Gefen says he will need to culture the chicken cells together in three dimensions to create the tissue. That requires a “scaffold” of sorts, something usually made from collagen from a live animal. As part of his research, Gefen is investigating whether the scaffold can be made from the cells themselves, meaning no live animals would be involved at any stage.

Mass production

Shir Friedman, co-founder of the Modern Agriculture Foundation that is funding Gefen’s work, predicts mass production of cultured chicken meat could take 10 to 30 years. “It’s a bit like playing God in the lab,” says Friedman. “It’s very difficult to do but not impossible. But once you make it happen, it’s an exponential thing. In the not-so-distant future, we will look back at how we used to raise cows and chickens and [wonder at how we] put so much effort into getting a small piece of meat.”

Will some consumers object to cultured chicken and other meats as they have to GMO (genetically modified organism) foods? Gefen says he hopes not. “We do not make any DNA manipulations. The cells will be the same cells that can be found in healthy chickens,” he says. “[But] I expect that when these technologies solidify into actual food products, and after appropriate regulatory approvals, there will be a need to ‘educate’ the public with regard to these new technologies and the prospects that they open up.”

If anything, cultured meat could be the perfect food of the future, says Gefen, “where you can control the nutritional value and the amount of chemicals and antibiotics so you can minimize their effect on the human body.” The cultured chicken meat Gefen envisions would still require some antibiotics “to protect the cells from infection, but because the food will be produced in a sterile environment, the levels [of antibiotics] will be reduced substantially,” he adds.

Ultimately, of course, the defining factor with consumers will likely be taste. Gefen says he’s confident that cultured chicken can be produced to please consumer palates. “Our goal is to use tissue engineering to create co-cultures—cultures with different types of cells—[so] we will be able to control the [meat] texture and diversify it, something you cannot do when you grow a chicken in a coop or a cow in a barn,” he says. “You can insert fat cells and grow colonies of fat cells within muscles. It isn’t trivial, but the level of juiciness will be in our hands.”

Brian Blum

Brian Blum is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem, Israel. He specializes in technology, startups and the entrepreneurs behind them, writing for publications including The Jerusalem Post, Israel21c and Israeli university magazines.

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