The United Nations predicts that there will be an additional 2.2 billion people on the planet by 2050. To help feed the growing population, the food industry must overcome several critical challenges, from the amount of arable land available for growing crops and the environmental demands of agriculture to the ethical considerations surrounding the consumption of meat.
Creating more robust food systems that are less resource-intensive, less harmful to animals, and friendlier to the planet is absolutely imperative to meet the demands of this growing population. Creating food products from mammalian, plant, or microbial cells rather than whole organisms is increasingly being seen as an important part of the solution to this challenge. CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing will be vital to achieving this goal, allowing synthetic biologists to uncover the genetics underpinning relevant cellular processes and pathways, edit these genes, and then optimize cell lines for the bioproduction of food.
Bringing cultured meat to the mass market
Although vegetarian and vegan diets have risen in popularity over the years, humankind’s appetite for meat is still insatiable. By 2031, it is estimated that the global demand for meat will rise by 15%, adding to an already substantial environmental burden.
Many are looking to cultured meat as a potential solution to both the ethical and environmental problems posed by mass meat consumption. There are now more than 150 companies around the world working on cultured meat, including beef, chicken, pork, and fish, and the industry is edging closer to its first commercial product launch. In fact, in June 2023, the U.S. Department of Agriculture granted its first approval of cell-cultured meat.
However, the cultured meat industry’s ability to overcome the global food supply challenges and offer a sustainable alternative to traditional meat is largely dependent on the feasibility of scaling up production.
Cultured meat production facilities should, in theory, consume less water and land than traditional agricultural systems, as well as emit fewer greenhouse gases. But many companies have failed to successfully scale up the production of cultured meat due to the sheer number of bioreactors that are required. This has left the industry with massive energy consumption bills and an onslaught of criticism over sustainability.
Despite the challenges of scaling, some companies are managing to prove the critics wrong. For example, Meatable has improved the bioproduction of its cells over the past few years in order to reach economic viability, thanks in no small part to CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing.
By combining the rapid proliferation properties of pluripotent stem cells with bit.bio’s opti-ox technology for precise cell differentiation control, Meatable has managed to cut its production time from three weeks to eight days—figures previously unheard of in the industry. Meatable also said that it has managed to achieve a four- to eightfold improvement in production that has significantly reduced the number of bioreactors needed to produce its meat substitute at scale.
It is important to note that the nutritional and fatty acid profile of cultured meat is exactly the same as meat from animals, which could aid public acceptance. In fact, Meatable aims to launch its product in Singaporean restaurants this year.
No crying over CRISPR milk
Meat might be the most high-profile use of CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing in the food industry, but there are plenty of others to sink our teeth into.
For example, CRISPR-Cas9 has been used to engineer bacteria and yeast to produce the casein and whey, the principle protein components of milk. These proteins are then combined with other ingredients, such as water, sugars, and fats, to create the familiar white stuff.
The best part about such cultured milk is its similarity to the real thing, especially compared to nut milks or other alternatives. It has a similar nutrient profile to traditional cow’s milk, without using animals or the environmental impact of dairy farming. An added benefit is that CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing can be used to make this milk non-allergenic and lactose-free.
Yummy yeasts and fermented flavors
CRISPR genome engineering has also been used in various yeast strains to take food and drink production to the next level.
For example, a Belgian team used CRISPR-Cas9 to overcome the impact of high pressures on the flavor of beer, a common side effect of upscaling fermentation. To do this, they created a gene alteration in a yeast strain that not only enhanced its flavor profile, but also increased its ability to tolerate carbon dioxide pressure.
Gene editing can also be used to synthesize new food flavorings. There is a high demand for flavorings produced via natural sources, thanks to discerning consumers who are rightly concerned about the provenance and health risks of food additives, as well as affordability and quality. But producing large amounts of flavorings from natural ingredients is not always easy or environmentally sustainable.
Evolva uses CRISPR-based technology to overcome the bottlenecks in flavoring production and produce nature-based ingredients such as nootkatone, valencene, vanillin, and l-arabinose from yeast.
There are multiple other examples of genetic engineering being deployed in bioproduction, such as grabbing molecular pathways from hops and including them into the genome of an industrial brewing yeast. In this way, it might be possible to get all the flavors you would traditionally expect from hops without actually using them in the beer production process. You could also impart many other flavors in the same way, creating a versatile brewing system for traditional and novel beverages.
The future of food looks tasty
It’s clear that there are many exciting applications for CRISPR technology in the food and beverage industry, not only in terms of exploring novel production processes but also as a tool to overcome the challenges with production scale-up.
However, in order to realize the potential environmental and ethical benefits of bioproduced food, there needs to be widespread support from both the industry and the public. Unfortunately, there’s been a lot of historical confusion and fearmongering around genetic modification of foodstuffs, and whether a particular product is classified as GMO or not is dependent on where you are based.
There needs to be careful communication around terms such as CRISPR, genome engineering, and genetic modification if we are to use these powerful technologies to meet the challenge of feeding a growing global population.
The need for better solutions for food production is accelerating, but so is the pace of progress. It will be exciting to see what CRISPR delivers for the food industry in the years to come.
Cillian McGorman is the business development and product manager at ERS Genomics.