The manufactured meat sector in the Netherlands keeps growing. Last week, Meatable received an additional $10 million financing. Meatable will use this funding to try to manufacture pork on a commercial scale.
The funding originates mainly from angel and institutional investors – $7 million, plus a $3 million grant from the European Commission.
Krijn de Nood (the CEO) has written an article explaining some of the background. Meatable are looking to genetically modify pork muscle stem cells using a technique called OPTI-OX. This is a technique that will speed up growth of muscle fibers significantly, hopefully attaining commercial scale. It does involve genetically modifying the DNA.
Is that a problem? Is it OK to eat genetically modified meat? Research will have to proof food safety. This may take some time, but appears no problem so far. Then there is consumer acceptance.
But first we need to address the question of why genetically modifying meat-cells will probably be necessary.
Like all cells in an animal, most normal muscle cells carry the whole DNA of the animal. However, contrary to popular perception, muscle cells do not actually divide into more muscle cells. Also, not all of the DNA is actually used by the muscle cells.
New muscle cells are normally formed from muscle stem cells. These stem cells do divide. Unfortunately, one problem is that they only divide a limited number of times. After a number of generations, the cells age and stop reproducing.
Techniques to reset a normal muscle cell into a muscle stem cell exist and have been demonstrated many times by several companies and research groups. This is called induction. The thus created muscle stem cells are called Induced (Pluripotent) Stem Cells, or iPSC. Meatable has been using this technique to start the growing of new muscle fiber in a bioreactor.
It is possible to create the iPSC cells without genetically modifying the DNA, using growth-factors and hormones. MosaMeat, for example, is trying to avoid using any DNA modifications in beef manufacturing. In this case, muscle cells will have to be re-induced after a while to prevent the stem cells from disappearing.
Another option is to immortalize stem cells by changing their DNA (over expressing the TERT gene, for example). A modification can be made very cheaply using CRISP/CAS9 or other DNA modification techniques.
Modifying DNA (in the Meatable case using OPTI-OX) has several disadvantages. The main one being concerns for food safety. At present, it is unknown if these changes produce safe-to-eat muscle fiber. The DNA changes will be present in the consumed meat. We can probably safely eat the changes: every farm animal we eat today is already genetically different. In fact, chances are that every bit of pork we consume today has naturally occurring genetic modifications.
The DNA and most of the proteins in the meat we consume are broken down during digestion and reused by the body. But not all. Some proteins go straight into the bloodstream. What effect will man-made modifications have?
Forced by regulation or voluntarily, safety testing will have to be done. For now, it appears the meat is safe to eat and this issue seems lower risk and of later concern. However, the testing by itself will probably end up costing more than the initial $10 millions.