Development of cell-based shrimp snagged by a bottleneck

Published on
June 25, 2019

Shiok Meats, based in Singapore, made headlines when it unveiled a small quantity of lab-grown shrimp meat in the form of “siew mai” dumplings at the Disruption in Food and Sustainability Summit in March. Only three people – all associated with the company – got a taste, but it was a proof that the goal was achievable.

The company may have a leg up on competitors working on mammals, as CEO Sandhya Sriram has confirmed to SeafoodSource that fish and crustacean cell culture is easier than in mammals because they tolerate lower oxygen levels and temperatures. Diffusion of oxygen to tissues becomes a problem when cells are grown in three-dimensional shapes. The cells’ ability to tolerate lower temperatures also reduces heating costs. Shiok is focused on crustaceans.

Despite these advantages of working with shrimp, the cost is still exorbitant; the eight dumplings, containing a small amount of cultured shrimp cells, cost around SGD 5,000 (USD 3,694, EUR 3,253) and took a few months to produce. The main barrier to cost-efficient production, according to Sriram, is the media.  

“The cells grow in a nutrient mix/broth/soup called ‘media’ which is a mix of carbohydrates, proteins and fats - this mix currently is only produced by pharmaceutical companies as the clean meat industry is an extension of the stem cell industry used for therapy and organogenesis,” Sriram said. “Since this media now is pharma-grade, it is extremely expensive. The cost of production will go down once we find plant-based, edible and sustainable sources of nutrients in which the cells will grow.”

Organogenisis is the production of organs for transplant in the medical industry. The term “clean meat” is meant to contrast lab-grown meat from that grown in farmed, or even wild conditions, as these may contain antibiotics, pollution or parasites.

The emphasis on plant-based media is important because the majority of media currently used for in-vitro cell culture of eukaryotic cells is fetal bovine serum (FBS), which comes from blood drawn from a bovine (cow) fetus at the slaughterhouse. As an example of the high cost of this media, a case of 10 500 milliliter bottles of Corning-brand fetal bovine serum is available from a supplier for USD 5,150 (EUR 4,517).

What’s more, the price of FBS is “completely unstable,” since pregnant cows usually become available for slaughter as a result of dairy herd reductions, which may be prompted by droughts or other unpredictable reasons, according to another maker, Thermo Fischer Scientific, in its video titled “Why do FBS prices fluctuate constantly?

Besides price, using media derived from the blood of the fetuses of slaughtered cows would hardly be acceptable to the vegetarians and vegans who are expected to accept cultured meat on the logic that, after the cell line is established, no further animals need to be killed in its production. The amount of FBS produced worldwide is estimated at 500,000 liters per year, requiring the harvesting of a million fetuses. If there is to be any hope of appealing to vegetarians, the connection to FBS must be broken.

Serum free media has already been developed, including media that contains no animal products, but it must be optimized for each specific type of cell to be grown, while FBS is an all-around growth media that works well for all eukaryotic cells. 

Sriram said that her company does not use FBS, but uses a commercially available serum free media. However, as it is pharmaceutical grade, it is still expensive. 

Sriram also noted another hurdle to be overcome, mainly sourcing the cells themselves.

“There is no cell bank that has shrimp stem cells in the world,” Sriram said. “Hence, we had to isolate the cells ourselves and that is included in our patent-pending technology. We are in the midst of forming the stem cell bank for crustaceans.”

Stem cells have inherently high proliferative capacity and are capable of differentiating into multiple cell types that are relevant for meat, like muscle, fat, and connective tissue.

The company plans to launch commercially in Singapore and Hong Kong by end of 2020 or the start of 2021. Japan is also one of the markets it is keen to launch in.    

The company recently received USD 4.6 million (EUR 4.1 million) from a consortium of investors. It plans to launch commercially in Singapore and Hong Kong by end of 2020 or the start of 2021. Japan is also one of the markets it is keen to launch in.    

Contributing Editor reporting from Osaka, Japan

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