As the lab-grown meat industry rapidly gains traction, the seafood and fish farming sector is trying to keep pace. Like these fleshy tissues, fish cells can help meet global needs for food security, climate, and health.
Compared to lab-grown meat, there’s less hype around cell-farming of fish (cell-ag), in part because fish doesn’t play such a big role in people’s diets in countries like the United States. Looking at the EU market, habits and preferences vary from one EU country to another. European consumers in landlocked countries consume less fish and seafood than those in coastal countries such as Italy and Spain.
Even though fish may not be on our menus in our daily lives, the search for sustainable and alternative ways to meet consumer demand should be encouraged. Aquaculture has been seen as a possible solution to deal with overfishing, but it mainly uses intensive farming practices which raises questions about animal welfare and also increasing water pollution, due to the use of antibiotics.
Although there are more sustainable examples of aquaculture methods, if the production of fish cells were as popular as the production of lab-grown meat, we could benefit from a wider range of healthier, cleaner animal proteins. .
Cellular or cultured fish is sustainable fish meat produced from real fish cells that is cultured in a bioreactor. Unlike wild-caught fish, it is obtained without compromising animal welfare. Research has shown that the physiological properties of fish cell and tissue culture may be particularly suitable for culture in vitro.
Bluu Bioscience boasts of being the first and only European cultured seafood company specializing in the development of cell-based fish. The German startup is focused on scaling up the production of fish cell lines to make seafood products. Earlier in March, it closed its seed funding round at $8.52 million from investors such as Manta Ray Ventures, CPT Capital, Lever VC, Norrsken and Be8.
Cell-based meats from land animals and cell-based seafood from aquatic species are fundamentally similar: “They share the same goals, the same challenges, and celebrate the same advancements,” says cell biologist Frea Mehta at Bluu Biosciences. Moreover, both stem from the new evolution of cellular agriculture: like all culture in the meat space, cellular agriculture in fish is built on an application of biomedical research.
Bluu Bioscience was born from the research of Dr. Sebastian Rakers, analyzing outbreaks in fish species represented in aquaculture, in order to develop treatments. According to his research, the fish cell tissue that has been made has had compelling applications such as living bandages to treat burn victims.
Where cell-based seafood differs from meat grown from cells from land animals, however, is in the amount of information and resources now available: “Cell biology and production are based on mammalian cells as models for our own biomedical applications related to these animals,” says Mehta.
This presents enormous challenges: “We work with cells that have been neglected biomedically like many marine species”, explains the biologist. However, apps to really advance research in these areas now exist. This is also where cell-cultured seafood offers tremendous growth opportunities and the potential to impact not only the global food system, but also biomedicine.
Expanding research to fish and seafood tissues can be seen as having unlimited impact, not just for our palates: “We are now learning to grow cells of species that we have never been able to do before , or there has never been a high value-added critical application solution for,” continues Mehta.
More support needed
With the timid but growing interest in the sector, Bluu Bioscience was able to close its seed funding round in less than ten months after its founding. There are currently only a handful of other companies active in this field in the world, including the US-based Finless Foods, which initially started out producing plant-based products and later expanded into alternatives to seafood from cell culture.
Fish cell startups don’t view their lab-grown meat brethren as competitors, but rather as enablers. Policy developments for the fleshy cell industry will also have a positive domino effect on them. Achieving cost parity is one of the big challenges right now, says Mehta: “What would be amazing to see from a policy perspective is more support for cultured meat, research and development and infrastructure, because without that, it will be difficult to achieve technological prowess.