The Van Trump Report

Tobacco Could Have a New Role in Cultured Meat Production

Cultured meat has failed to keep pace with the plant-based protein industry, its main rival in the faux meat space. Some of the bigger hurdles cultured meat has been trying to overcome revolve around its reliance on animal-derived growth factors. Not only is it prohibitively expensive, but the fact that its production requires the slaughter of animals disqualifies it as a true meat alternative in the eyes of many critics. This has fueled a whole new crop of startups looking to develop lower-cost, animal-free alternatives. One of those is Israel-based BioBetter, which has pioneered a process that utilizes tobacco plants.

For those not familiar, culture meat “grows” by being “fed” essential amino acids, nutrients, and growth factors that typical animals need to grow and reproduce. These are provided by “culture mediums” which have traditionally included fetal bovine serum (FBS). The serum is collected from the blood of cow fetuses after the adult cows are slaughtered, a complicated process that factors into its very expensive price tag. Keep in mind, growth factors and cell-culture media can account for an estimated 50% to 80% of cultured meat’s production costs. Due to the prohibitive costs as well as the obvious optics issues FBS creates for cultured meat’s vegan-friendly image, many companies have since begun developing animal-free alternatives that utilize fermentation techniques. While these methods have helped bring costs down, the bioreactors and extensive purification processes are still quite expensive and problematic to scale.  

BioBetter says its novel approach essentially turns tobacco plants into live bioreactors. The process involves identifying the gene of the target protein, cloning it, and transferring it into the tobacco plant. As the tobacco plants mature, their cells express the growth factors and store them until harvest. The company claims that its open-field cultivation and in-house purification process has driven down the price of manufacturing growth factors to as little as $1 per gram.  

Amit Yaari, CEO of BioBetter, says there are multiple advantages to using “Nicotiana tabacum” as a vector for producing growth factors. “It is an abundant crop that has no place in the food-and-feed chain due to its extremely bitter taste and content of undesirable alkaloids,” he explains. “The global trend for reducing tobacco smoking also is raising concerns among tobacco growers that the crop might eventually become obsolete.” Yaari notes that tobacco plants can achieve up to four growth cycles annually and be harvested all year, which translates to a reliable, year-round supply. It is also suited for the production of a large number of complex proteins, which means it has vast potential in the production of food.  
BioBetter was founded by Professor Oded Shoseyov, a self-described serial entrepreneur and researcher at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and his partner Avi Tzur, an industrialist that says he wants to “put the tobacco plant to positive use.” The company has also already demonstrated the ability of tobacco plants to act as natural bioreactors. One of BioBetter’s first tobacco plant-based developments was the drug Humira, which is used to treat autoimmune disease. The company shifted focus when it realized the potential in filling the gap in the supply of growth factors. (Sources: Food Navigator, GreenQueen, StartupHub)

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