May 23, 2022

Mycoprotein vs. cell-cultured seafood

By Conor McKechnie and Dodi Axelson

Mycoprotein vs. cell-cultured seafood

We know meat is problematic for the environment, and seafood has its own issues with overfishing, so do we have to wave goodbye to the foods we love?

We start with mycoprotein, in the form of the well-known meat substitute products of Quorn Foods. Tim Finnigan, Chief Scientific Advisor for Quorn Foods, explains why mycoprotein is such a suitable source of protein, how it is manufactured, the environmental benefits, and how Fusarium venenatum, the microfungus, was discovered. And... it's tasty!

In the same episode, we ask Dr Lauran Madden, Chief Technology Officer at BlueNalu, to share with you the engineering process, the health and environmental benefits, and the positive impact on the environment of their cell-cultured seafood. This is hugely critical as the populations of marine species have halved since 1970, battling with overfishing, illegal fishing, and the effects of trawling. This cell-cultured seafood comes first...plaice... *sorry*.

By the end of this episode, we will hopefully have demonstrated the environmental and health benefits of switching meat out of our diets for better alternatives.


CONOR: Dodi, let me start today's episode with a quote and you tell me if you know who said it.

DODI: Okay, I didn't know you could do voices Conor but let's hear it.

CONOR: "We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or the wing by growing those parts separately under a sustainable medium." Okay, there's the voice.

DODI: Oh, is this a person who smokes a cigar by any chance?

CONOR: It is, absolutely. It's none other than Winnie himself, Mr. 'fight them on the beaches', Winston Churchill.

DODI: I could have guessed.

CONOR: So, he said that way back in 1931. He was imagining a world where clean meat grown in VATS had become a reality and a sustainable way forward for protein.

DODI: Okay, clean meat.

CONOR: Exactly. So, on today's episode, I want to look closer at some of the alternatives to meat that are out there, and what might be waiting for us in the future. And spoiler alert, guess what this episode includes fungi.

DODI: Because you cannot help yourself!

CONOR: I refuse to quit. And that's what matters on today's episode of Discovery Matters.

DODI: Okay, Conor, who are you bringing to this episode?

CONOR: Well, let's start with mycology, shall we? Let's start with Tim.

DR TIM FINNIGAN: So, I'm Tim Finnigan. I'm currently the Chief Scientific Adviser for Quorn Foods.

DODI: I know Quorn, that's the meat substitute product.

CONOR: Exactly the origins of Quorn, believe it or not, start all the way back in the 1960s.

DR TIM FINNIGAN: It was one man's big idea, one man's vision, and that was the Lord Rank. He was looking at what was happening, this is pre-Green Revolution, in a time when the world genuinely thought that it was going to run out of food. And he just decided to do this amazing thing and set his team out to find a new source of protein. He decided that something needed to be done.

CONOR: So, Lord Joseph Arthur Rank's team went looking for a micro-organism and one that would transform the plentiful starch that was around into the less than plentiful protein.

DR TIM FINNIGAN: I think that was quite a brave thing to doat the time, because although mankind has eaten microorganisms for 1 000s of years, it's usually because they do something to something like, you know, yeast in the manufacture of bread, whereas this idea was well, you know, why not actually look at the whole of the biomass itself.

CONOR: So, they looked at over 3000 soil samples worldwide.

DODI: So, we're looking at eating dirt.

CONOR: Well, it's not really, right? It's things that live in dirt. Okay. So, eventually, one day in 1967 they found what they were looking for and where they found it blows my mind.

DR TIM FINNIGAN: And so, the story goes, it was in somebody's compost heap in Marlow Bottom in Buckinghamshire.

CONOR: So, there in a compost heap in a little village, like eight miles from where we are at the headquarters in the UK of Cytiva, they came across this tiny member of the fungi family, Fusarium venenatum. And by the 1980s, Lord Rank was given permission to sell this mycoprotein for human consumption, and voila, Quorn was born.

DR TIM FINNIGAN: We know it's got amazing nutrition. We know that its environmentally very benign relative to other sources of protein. And most importantly of all, it actually creates fantastic food that is available currently in 17 countries worldwide. You know, an amazing journey for one man's idea and a tiny little member of the fungi family in a compost heap.

DODI: All right, describe how that fermentation process works exactly.

CONOR: So, Tim says you can kind of think of it like a very large brewery.

DODI: We've spoken about breweries and yeast.

CONOR: Yeah, we love that.

DR TIM FINNIGAN: The difference being that we're harvesting the solids and not the liquid, but at the start of it is something that's quite amazing because you know, if you've ever made bread or wine at home, you open your yeast sachet, that's kind of exactly what happens at the start of each fermentation run to produce mycoprotein. And those few tiny little spores of our production strain, get brought back to life and a little bit of sugar solution and just sit there happily in about five liters, until they get to a certain sort of growth concentration, and then they get put into the fermenter which is about 160 m2 (160,000 liters), and what a dilution that is. And there it sort of enters what's called 'the batch phase', where it grows quite happily for about four or five days and quite rapidly actually, up to a kind of a working concentration. And I think, here's where the engineering magic happens because not only is that done under very sterile conditions, because you don't want anything else in there but our mycoprotein, but we're then able to hold it at that point of maximum growth and harvest at the same rate that it grows. And we can do that for something like 35 days until we stop, clean down, and start all over again.

DODI: That's incredible.

CONOR: So, there's no limit to what these remarkable organisms can do.

DODI: You're right, you're right, you're right. So, when it comes to Quorn, what is it really that makes it such a flexible protein foodstuff?

CONOR: Yeah, so the big reason is that it's actually filamentous, which means it's, you know...

DODI: That's a big word. It means...?

CONOR: So, when the cell continues to elongate, it doesn't divide, it just kind of stretches, right? So, you get textures.

DODI: Oh, like gluten!

DR TIM FINNIGAN: Our fermenters are what's called air-lift, which means there are no moving parts. So, they are just like a big recirculating growing mycoprotein. With air going into the bottom, which causes bubbles which rise up to a certain height, then the pressure changes, and the gas is disengaged, and the fluid drops down, but there's quite high recirculation velocity. That actually works very well with filamentous fungi in what's called this was submerged culture, because otherwise if you tried to do it in stirred tank, then it's quite difficult if you've got these kinds of long fibers, lots of other fungi prefer to grow as little sort of tight balls. So, maintaining that this filamentous nature is actually really, really important for the subsequent food that's produced. And the reason for that is because it's kind of an optimal dimension to these mycelia and there's kind of roughly three to five microns across, which is sort of, you know, human hair territory I guess, and probably about 750 microns with kind of branches on them.

CONOR: And in that sense, it's almost as if nature's done the heavy lifting for Tim and the team at Quorn.

DODI: How kind.

DR TIM FINNIGAN: So, unlike other plant proteins, where you're looking to extract protein and isolate it and extrude it and produce texture that way, all that has to happen with mycoprotein is you cook it with a little bit of binder in there, freeze it, and that's it and it is the act of freezing that pushes those filamentous fibers together and creates a fibrous bundle that emulates meat and particularly chicken texture. The mycoprotein when it's harvested is a bit like bread dough without the elasticity, so you just look at it and think 'How on Earth can you create something that tastes like chicken from that?' It is just simply just cooking and freezing.

DODI: Oh, I love that this is neither vegetable nor animal.

CONOR: I know, it's like that 20 Questions game: animal, vegetable, or mineral? And no one's ever going to get it because it's none of those.

DODI: Okay, so we've covered mycoprotein Conor, even though you'll never be done talking about it, but what other new alternative protein sources are out there, right now?

CONOR: So, welcome to the world of cell-cultured seafood, and your guide today is Dr. Lauran Madden.

DR LAURAN MADDEN: I've always been very interested in applying a lot of the engineering, problem-solving principles to biological systems. And you know, how can we take advantage of this, you know, naturally occurring phenomena and very interesting processes and networks that happen and cells, and really create solutions and technologies to help us move forward.

CONOR: Lauran is the Chief Technology Officer at BlueNalu in California, and they work with cell-cultured seafood.

DR LAURAN MADDEN: So, I was actually the first employee of BlueNalu. So, when I joined, even just the concept of joining, I looked at the initial job description, and when you look at the top line 'creating seafood from cells', you think, "Oh, that's interesting". But then when you looked at all the technologies that are needed: creating robust cell cultures, creating the expansion technologies, the tissue engineering technologies to reform them into a product, all of those, I was like, "I've done that before, you know, not for this product necessarily, and with different applications, but the fundamental building blocks", it existed in a lot of regenerative medicine and a lot of chemical engineering technologies. The key was how do you take an existing industry for multiple different types of technologies, and optimize them for this specific application in food?

DODI: So, cell-cultured seafood sounds okay, is it cool? I don't know. But if that if that's on my menu card, am I going to order it, I don't know, tell me more about how it works.

CONOR: And Lauran says that what she really focuses on, as she tries to create the end product for her work, is that she's using both cool biology and engineering fundamentals to achieve.

DR LAURAN MADDEN: So, I think, for me, it was still a really fun scientific problem and engineering problem. And I think one of the awesome things too, is that you start actually putting together technical fields that have not worked together before. And so, it actually creates, you know, a very innovative environment in terms of the problem solving and getting that exchange of ideas.

CONOR: So, the whole thing is really highly multidisciplinary, from different parts of science comes this innovation.

DODI: Okay, so you've got engineering, biology, clearly food science, what are the other disciplines that Lauran is bringing together?

DR LAURAN MADDEN : There aren't even existing whole genomes for some of the species that we're working on. So, we actually have to start creating those foundational tools, and then applying them to the new systems, working with the bioprocess engineers, creating new cell culture medias that are animal free cell culture medias that actually have the right nutrition, and combinations to support the correct metabolism. And then, of course, adapting some of the existing technologies to the unique environmental needs of fish cells.

CONOR: Now, unlike mammalian cells, which, you know, we're really familiar with, because you know, as an industry, in biotech, we use them all the time, fish cells are typically at different temperatures, they require different environmental conditions, and have special needs.

DR LAURAN MADDEN : So, it's the process control is definitely different, and the sensitivities are different from what is out there currently. And I think on the downstream side, with the food product, I think that's where you get some of the most interesting dynamics, because at the end of the day, the cells coming out of the bioreactor are the building blocks of the product. We think about them not only are they correctly expressing the right genes and proteins, but do they have the correct nutrition? Are they making the right metabolites, so you have those umami flavors, that right saltiness, or that right aspect that uniquely creates seafood, versus having a chicken cell or a beef cell, which is going to have a different flavor composition?

CONOR: So, Lauran explained that one of the main things about seafood, that makes it different from land-based meat if you like, is the challenge in the supply-chain comes from multiple dimensions.

DODI: Here we go, again, with supply-chain!

DR LAURAN MADDEN : So, there's not only for example, if you take bluefin tuna or some of the other endangered species, you know, there's a very limited supply, but there's increasing demand. So, how do you, with a growing population and growing demand for certain products, provide that sensory experience and that product experience without continuing to you need the animal or slaughter the animal and put pressure on those fish stocks? So that's, you know, one solution and then you know, one of the other main challenges with seafood is that while it has many health benefits from a nutritional aspect, so lean proteins, omega threes, all the reasons that doctors will recommend seafood, but due to environmental contamination in the ocean is actually at risk. Bluefin specifically has very high mercury content, not everybody can eat the product. Now, there's a lot more news out there about microplastics or PCBs or other things that are naturally in the ocean that are getting into the food supply, it really calls into question is this actually healthier if along with that nutritious profile, you're kind of getting this right alongside environmental contaminants?

CONOR: And this is becoming more and more important as people understand more and more about the impact of industrial fishing, not just on fish stocks, but actually what's in those fish as well. For Lauran and BlueNalu, the idea is to make sure that their products are competitive with the conventional counterparts.

DR LAURAN MADDEN : And really, we want to make it as easy as possible for consumers to adopt them. If you want to create a solution, then you need to please the consumers first and make sure not only from a sensory perspective, taste, and texture, but also that it's not going to be overly impactful on the wallet.

DODI: So now, it's like Conor, you and I are a little bit obsessed with food. Besides mushrooms. Maybe we're always hungry. We talked recently about chocolate. And I guess what this all adds up to is that there are better alternatives for almost everything that we consume every day.

CONOR: Do we really? I mean, the only thing we can do is keep asking that question and meeting more and more really interesting scientists like Lauran and Tim, who keep pushing the boundaries of what's possible with food.

DODI: Well, let's do that. So, keep tuning in. Thank you for listening. Our executive producer is Andrea Kilin. Discovery Matters is produced with the help of Bethany Grace Armitt-Brewster, who has been promoted from intern to full time associate with us at Cytiva. So, congratulations and a big formal welcome to Bethany!

CONOR: Yay, go Bethany. Congratulations. Welcome to the team.

DODI: Editing mixing and music is by Tom Henley and Banda Produktions. My name is Dodi Axelson.

CONOR: And I'm Conor McKechnie. Make sure you rate us on Spotify or whatever platform you use. We'll see you when we come back with another episode of Discovery Matters.

DODI: Bye for now.

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