Fast food: Israeli team stumbles upon speed boost for slow-growing cultured meat

Researchers were focused on helping people after injury when they realized their findings could assist artificial meat producers to turn muscle into fiber in a fraction of the time

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Illustrative: Two samples of laboratory grown meat in separate petri dishes. (microgen/iStock by Getty Images)
Illustrative: Two samples of laboratory grown meat in separate petri dishes. (microgen/iStock by Getty Images)

Israeli scientists say they have found a way to significantly speed up the production of lab-grown meat, and potentially reduce its cost.

Companies around the world are working to introduce mass-produced artificial meat products, produced from in vitro cell cultures of animal cells. But the field has been hindered by high production costs, in part due to the lengthy process involved in growing the meat.

On Monday, a team from the Weizmann Institute of Sciences published peer-reviewed research in the journal Developmental Cell showing that the process can be sped up via a “biochemical pathway” that sets the pace at which cells form into artificial meat.

Acting as a gas pedal for artificial meat production, the discovery may allow producers to rev up the pace at which cells become meat, and potentially shave weeks off a process that currently takes nearly a month.

“A major issue facing this new industry is the slowness of the process and level of the yield, and this pathway, or biochemical signaling process, has the potential to improve both of these,” said Prof. Eldad Tzahor, who led the research with Dr. Tamar Eigler.

Uncontrolled, the growth process of stem cells triggered to produce cultured meat produces copious amounts of new muscle. The challenge is to control the process so that the cells mature into fiber.

The common solution today is to periodically stop the growth of muscle stem cells and wait for the existing supply of muscle to mature into fiber, but Tzahor and his team say their solution eliminates this need.

Illustrative image: Lab automation engineer Chigozie Nri prepares nutrients to feed cells, as research director Nicholas Legendre watches, in the laboratory of cultured meat startup New Age Meats, which has produced cell-based pork in San Francisco. A growing number of startups worldwide are making cell-based or cultured meat that doesn’t require slaughtering animals. (AP Photo/Terry Chea)

The scientists got interested in artificial meat by accident when they were conducting their ongoing medical research into muscle stem cells called myoblasts, which in humans are essential to recovery after injuries. These same cells, from animals, are used as the seed for artificial meat production.

Tzahor found that the maturing process of the cells, necessary to trigger processes key to producing edible cultured meat, accelerates when an enzyme called ERK is blocked. When this happens, another enzyme causes the cells to start fusing tiny fibers more quickly, and this in turn activates another enzyme CaMKII. This second enzyme triggers massive myoblast fusion and maturation.

The researchers found in experiments that their pathway drives fusion and maturation of cultured myoblasts taken from several species of farm animals, including chickens, cows and sheep.

Tzahor and his team have established a startup, ProFuse Technology, to market the findings for the artificial meat industry. He said it is a surprising journey for research that began in order to help humans after injuries, with no thought of food.

Prof. Eldad Tzahor of the Weizmann Institute of Science (Courtesy of the Weizmann Institute)

Myoblasts are formed in the embryo, but a tiny fraction of these cells stay on top of muscle fibers throughout our lives, even though their number declines with age. When a muscle is injured, these stem cells are the ones responsible for its repair and regeneration.

To initiate the repair process, these cells must stop dividing so they can mature and start fusing with one another and with the injured muscle tissue.

“Figuring out what regulates the fusion of myoblasts is crucial for understanding muscle repair,” Eigler said. “Without fusion there is no regeneration.”

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