With everything going on in the world right now, you might envy NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley for leaving Planet Earth in May on a rocket ship. Well, your chance to leave may come sooner than you think: SpaceX’s successful launch brings commercial space travel a little closer to reality. As technology advances, humans are likely to spend more and more time in space.
But one tricky issue remains: sending items into space is extremely expensive—about $10,000 a pound. Space dwellers will need to find a way to make their own food. But in the vacuum of space, how are we going to “live off the land?”
Emeryville, CA-based Finless Foods thinks it has the answer: grow fish meat in space…without the fish. And they’ve shown it’s possible, raising hopes not just for space colonization, but also for sustainable, cultured food here on Earth.
Harvesting from animals versus the lab
On September 8, 2017, Finless Foods made history by producing the first fish—grown outside of a fish—to ever be eaten. A select number of people were invited to try fishcakes made with cultured fish cells.
On September 8, 2017, Finless Foods made history by hosting the first tasting featuring their lab-grown fish cakes. FINLESS FOODS
Finless Foods was founded by Mike Selden and Brian Wyrwas, who serve as CEO and CSO, respectively. They are both biochemists and molecular biologists by training, and they founded Finless Foods with a mission to bring sustainable, delicious, and ethical seafood to the world. The company uses cellular biology to grow seafood – without the fish.
“Fish is one of the healthiest sources of protein on the planet,” Selden said, “but over 90% of the world’s fisheries are over-exploited or just depleted.” As more people turn to fish as part of a nutritious diet, he says, the problem is only going to get worse. “We’re taking the first step into a world where everyone has access to fresh, healthy, delicious, and sustainable seafood.”
You may have heard the terms “cultured meat” or “lab-grown meat.” These terms may not sound appetizing, but consumers and investors alike see the potential of companies like Finless Foods, Memphis Meats, Clara Foods, Just, Perfect Day, and Wild Earth, to name just a few, in making sustainable, high-quality food using the latest techniques in a new field called cellular agriculture.
Cellular agriculture is something like regular agriculture, but instead of harvesting a fruit, vegetable, or meat, you harvest cells. Companies can use biology to grow foods like meat cells and milk proteins from cell cultures in a lab-like setting. This high-tech process eliminates the need to use livestock to obtain the same products. Cellular agriculture promises to offer a more sustainable and humane alternative to today’s livestock agricultural system.
And in space, where there are no cows or chickens, cellular agriculture might just be what’s for dinner.
So long, and thanks for all the fish
As if making fishcakes from a few fish cells were not enough, Finless Foods has also shown the potential of cellular agriculture in humanity’s quest to explore space. Last year, they sent fish muscle cells to the International Space Station in collaboration with a Russian mission and 3D Bioprinting Solutions, who provided a 3D bioprinter. The team was able to grow the cells to a certain density, then use the bioprinter to arrange the fish cells into 3D structures, forming small spheres of cells—the first step toward shaping it into something that resembles the food we already know and love.
Picture from Roscosmos, the Russian state space corporation involved in the project to culture fish cells in space on the International Space Station. ROSCOSMOS
You may think, “Why do all of this in space?” Well, if colonization is going to be possible in space, we would need to be self-sustainable and grow food on site. The average tuna weighs 20 pounds, costing about $200,000 to send it to space. And it’s problematic to have a fish tank in space, where water is precious and gravity is lacking.
Instead, imagine being able to just send a few cells of many varieties (chicken, beef, fish, your choice), along with the equipment and nutrients to grow the cells on-site. Not only would this be more cost-efficient, sustainable, and humane, it would also be faster.
But growing seafood in space is not Finless Foods’ main mission. They wish to make cultured seafood available to everyone here on Earth.
Challenges and opportunities in cultured meats
One of the challenges with cultured meat is to imitate the natural structure of the product. Grown outside the animal, cultured cells do not assemble as they would normally. This challenge is something Finless Foods would like to solve. They continue to collaborate with 3D Bioprinting Solutions and are hoping to get their hands on a bioprinter themselves to further experiment in their own lab in California’s Bay Area.
Will we eat cultured meats in the future? Selden thinks there is no doubt about it.
“Agriculture is an important part of the way the world works,” he says. “It is at the intersection of so many different ways in which the world needs to change. Food justice, malnutrition, environmental justice, and animal cruelty… It’s such a big lever that we can push and change to make the world better off.”
Finless Foods co-founders, Brian Wyrwas and Michael Selden. FINLESS FOODS
Selden says that our oceans are at their carrying capacity and that we currently fish everything we can out of the ocean every year. “We cannot increase this number,” he says. While fish farming does solve some of the sustainability issues, he says not all fish can be farmed. In addition, the demand for seafood is increasing. “Fish farms have not moved human seafood consumption out of the oceans,” Selden claims.
“With our system, not only can we create these fish that cannot be farmed, but we can scale up very quickly. If you start a fish farm, it takes at least two years before you can produce any fish. In our system, our cells double every 24 hours, meaning our growth is exponential. The farm is not. We see this as a means of scaling up to meet the world’s seafood demand in a much more efficient way.” Selden says.
The finest fish first
One of the main fish Finless Foods is working on is the giant bluefin tuna. Often used in sushi and sashimi, bluefin tunas are captured from the oceans and are not suitable for fish farms, making them an excellent candidate for cultured seafood. Finless Foods is also working on sea urchin, eel, and pufferfish.
Cultured seafood is not yet available on the market. But as soon as it is, I can’t wait to try the cultured bluefin sashimi.
Follow me on Twitter at @johncumbers and @synbiobeta. Subscribe to my weekly newsletters in synthetic biology. Thank you to Stephanie Michelsen for additional research and reporting in this article. I’m the founder of SynBioBeta, and some of the companies that I write about—including Finless Foods—are sponsors of the SynBioBeta conference and weekly digest. Here’s the full list of SynBioBeta sponsors.
Originally published on Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/johncumbers/2020/07/15/fishcakes-in-space-how-one-biotech-startup-is-fermenting-far-out-food/0