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The secret to producing artificial meat on a massive scale

Researchers at Ebara are exploring the potential of using fat cells (shown) to make artificial meat. Credit: nopparit/E+/Gettyimages

A company that specializes in producing pumps, compressors and industrial equipment isn’t something you would necessarily associate with a juicy steak. But by collaborating with biological researchers in the universities and biotech companies, Ebara Corporation in Tokyo, Japan, is planning to use its technology to mass produce artificially cultured meat.

The demand for meat could grow even faster than the increase in the global population, says researchers. As incomes in emerging countries grow, people are likely to include more meat in their diet. This will require clearing large tracts of land for raising livestock and will also increase the emission of greenhouse gases such as methane.

Artificially cultured meat could help alleviate this crisis, because it doesn’t require nearly as much land as livestock and its production causes much lower emissions of greenhouse gases. It could also offer other advantages such as resilience to weather conditions and disease, and the possibility of optimizing its nutritional properties.

An industrial approach

While attracting much interest, the development of cultured meats is still in its infancy and several major challenges need to be overcome before it starts appearing in supermarkets. In particular, the cost of production needs to be drastically reduced before it can compete with conventional meat. This will require greatly scaling up existing processes.

Developing large-scale industrial systems is critical for upscaling the production of artificial meat. Credit: Parilov/Shutterstock

Despite these challenges, Koji Hattori of Ebara is confident that cultured meat will start to become commercially viable within about ten years. “We hope to start the commercialization of cultured meat within a decade,” says Hattori. “To achieve this, we need to develop industrial-scale, mass-production equipment.”

As a manufacturer of high-precision industrial systems, Ebara sees a long-term commercial opportunity to apply its systems to help create a sustainable solution to producing meat. By utilizing their expertise in fluid and temperature control, researchers at Ebara are developing large-scale systems for producing cultured meat.

“As an industrial machinery manufacturer, we’d like to contribute to the development of the large-scale cell-culture equipment,” says Hattori. “We want to develop equipment for the biotechnology field using our technology that includes fluid control and thermal control.”

But the company is very conscious that they can’t do it alone, and they are collaborating with specialists in biological research to develop this technology. “We’re not only seeking to develop a commercial system, but we also want to act as a hub that connects collaborators,” explains Hattori.

Ebara is working on developing systems that produces cultured meat cells more efficiently, in large amounts and with homogeneous quality. But to achieve that they need the expertise of researchers working on the latest methods of culturing cells.

Nurturing cells

One of those collaborators is CellFiber, a company based in Tokyo, Japan, that is using cell-culture technology to develop high-efficiency, mass-production processes for culturing cells.

In particular, it is using a technology that was originally developed for cell therapy. It is based on a hollow-fibre structure that can incorporate cells1. This structure provides a nurturing environment for cells, serving as a barrier against mechanical stress and ensuring that cells are supplied with sufficient nutrients and oxygen.

Hollow fibres are showing promise for cultivating cells for making artificial meat.

The platform was first developed by a team led by Shoji Takeuchi at the University of Tokyo. “Professor Takeuchi was interested in how to build complicated structures like organs and other living systems by using a bottom-up approach,” explains Yu Yanagisawa, CEO of CellFiber. “He realized that developing fibre-shaped aggregates could be a useful approach since many living systems are composed of fibres.” A recent study has reported that cell-fibre technology is advantageous for reconstructing muscular structure2.

“What distinguishes our technology from others is the fibre-formation technique,” says Yanagisawa. “The microfluidic device we use has a double-coaxial structure that allows us to easily fabricate hollow fibres.”

The team is currently in the early stages of applying this technology to cultured meat, with the aim of producing a product that has a similar texture to real meat. The main challenge is to increase the throughput of the technology to meet the scale required for cultured meat production.

“I believe this approach is unique,” says Yanagisawa. “I hope it will attract attention from people in the cultured-meat area around the world.”

A different approach

Another collaborator is Koichiro Kano, a professor at Nihon University, in Kanagawa, Japan. He has found a promising way to mass produce cultured meat by using a novel kind of cell.

Cultured meat is generally produced from naturally occurring stem cells found in skeletal muscle tissue, but like other stem cells, these in vivo stem cells are in short supply. This is one of the main reasons why producing cultured meat is currently so expensive because stem cells must be collected and their progenitor cells cultured.

A micrograph showing dedifferentiated fat (DFAT) cells (grey, triangular structures), which are promising for making artificial meat.

Kano has discovered a way to sidestep the use of such naturally occurring stem cells. He found that mature adipocytes isolated from animal adipose tissue can spontaneously revert to an earlier stage of development (dedifferentiation) to generate dedifferentiated fat (DFAT) cells with high proliferative capacity and multipotency3,4,5,6,7. Since adipocytes are abundant in the body, they could serve as a cost-effective and efficient source for the mass production of cultured meat.

“The most significant advantage of DFAT cells is their potential for mass production at a lower cost compared to other stem cells,” explains Kano. “This advantage suggests that they could be an effective as a cell source for cultured meat.”

Kano’s team is now working on establishing DFAT cells from various livestock and developing a system to efficiently induce DFAT cells to differentiate into muscle cells and adipocytes. Through this, their long-term goal is to achieve safe, low-cost and environmentally friendly production of cultured meat.

By combining research in diverse areas of biological research with their biotechnology equipment, researchers at Ebara hope to make cultured meat a reality. “The realization of cultured meat is a global challenge,” says Hattori. “Our vision is to help address worldwide food issues by achieving the commercialization of cultured meat.”

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