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This profile is tailored towards students studying agricultural sciences, basic medicine, biological sciences, business, chemical sciences, computer science, economics, engineering, law, maths and physics, however we expect there to be valuable open research questions that could be pursued by students in other disciplines.
Why is this a pressing problem?
Each year, the production of animal products subjects hundreds of billions of land and aquatic animals to lives of extreme confinement, painful mutilations, and inhumane slaughter. The Sentience Institute estimates that in 2019, 99% of land animals in the US were factory farmed, with a similar percentage of farmed fish in comparable conditions. These animals are particularly likely to experience welfare issues such as untreated injuries, chronic infections, separation from their offspring and other severe constraints on their natural behaviours.
Animal agriculture also poses risks to humans. Poor conditions lead to a higher prevalence of disease among animals, which in turn increases the likelihood of pathogens passing from animals to humans and causing pandemics. Unhealthy animals require more antibiotics, potentially contributing to rising antimicrobial resistance in humans (although more research is needed to establish the size of this effect).
The animal agricultural sector is responsible for about 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Growing crops to feed them to farm animals rather than growing crops directly for human consumption is also vastly inefficient. By 2050, there will be nearly 10 billion people in the world to feed, and demand for animal products is expected to rise significantly. To produce enough food by 2050, we will need a more efficient system.
Cultivated and plant-based alternatives to animal products might be able to mitigate all these problems. Although previous forecasts of when cultivated meat might become widely available have been over-optimistic and newer forecasts suggest it is not likely to be available in the next few decades, speeding up its availability could avert a huge amount of suffering. However, innovations in many parts of the production process are necessary to bring its widespread availability forward. Academic research is particularly helpful for moving the field forward as the research results are available for everyone to learn from, whereas research done in private companies is often confidential.
See Bruce Friedrich’s introduction to the importance of this research below.
Explore existing research
- See the Good Food Institute’s alternative proteins literature library to find research papers.
- This document maintained by Ellen Pelos also provides a regular collation of empirical research related to this research direction.
The Good Food Institute and New Harvest are two nonprofits working to accelerate cultivated protein innovation.
There are many companies focused on producing plant-based and cultivated protein alternatives. If you want to explore further, the Protein Directory lists companies developing alternative proteins. The Good Food Institute has a company database and has written state of the industry reports on cultivated protein alternatives, fermentation, plant-based alternatives and alternative seafood.
Find a thesis topic
If you’re interested in working on this research direction, below are some ideas on what would be valuable to explore further. If you want help refining your research ideas, apply for our coaching!
The Good Food Institute has written about many existing and future research bottlenecks.
With regards to plant-based alternatives, research into new alternative plant protein sources could be valuable. Plant molecular farming could be one topic that students studying agricultural science could explore. Research into transitioning from an animal-based agricultural system to a bioreactor based system could also be valuable.
This research paper explores various ways that biomedical research could contribute to the development of cultivated meat.
Research and development on cultivated meat is necessary across the three stages in its production – cell lines, growth medium formulation, and scaffolding – in order for it to become a scalable process. Some bottlenecks are growth media costs, optimisation and isolation of cell lines from each animal, optimisation of cell differentiation and co-culture of the relevant cell types (skeletal muscle, fat tissue, connective tissue). Biotechnologists can also help with designing bioreactors to allow for large scale cellular growth – see the section on engineering below.
The Good Food Institute has written in more detail about many existing and future bottlenecks in the field that researchers can work on, such as incorporating omega 3s into cultivated seafood, creating co-cultured support cells for cultivated meat, using plant-based scaffolds to improve cultivated meat nutrition and doing metabolic modelling for cultivated meat.
This site is another way of learning about the pathways that researchers can follow. See the overview of how biological research can contribute to alternative proteins research and development.
The Career Guide for Ending Factory Farming suggests ‘work on seafood and egg alternatives are currently more neglected so by working on these products, you would have a greater contribution.’
Research could explore ways to: establish reliable supply chains for ingredients used in alternative proteins; predict how the cost of cultivated meat will decrease and the associated impact on its share of the global protein market over time; determine the true cost of meat considering all of the externalized costs such as environmental pollution, water scarcity, land degradation, greenhouse gas emissions, factory farm worker exploitation, human healthcare; and assess how shifting the subsidies currently provided to animal agriculture to crops used to make alternative proteins would impact costs. See more ideas in the Career Guide for Ending Factory Farming.
Research and development on cultivated meat is necessary across the three stages in its production – cell lines, growth medium formulation, and scaffolding – in order for it to become a scalable process. Some bottlenecks are growth media costs, optimisation and isolation of cell lines from each animal, optimisation of cell differentiation and co-culture of the relevant cell types (skeletal muscle, fat tissue, connective tissue). Chemical engineers can also help with designing bioreactors to allow for large scale cellular growth – see the section on engineering below.
The Good Food Institute has written in more detail about many existing and future bottlenecks in the field that researchers can work on, such as plant-based scaffolds to improve cultivated meat nutrition.
With regards to plant-based meat, further research and development into taste and structure factors is needed, as well as research into new alternative plant protein sources.
This site explains the pathways that researchers can follow depending on their research discipline. See the overview of how machine learning research can contribute to alternative proteins research and development.
The Cultivated Meat Modelling Consortium is an organisation aiming to develop computational modelling technologies to accelerate alternative protein development. See their site for talks and research ideas.
In this Career Guide to End Factory Farming, Jeffray Behr writes, ‘In current societies based on capitalism, economics is an essential aspect to consider to ensure growth and longevity. Movements (such as ending factory farming) will only prevail if there is an economic incentive to do so. As such, economists can have a large impact on the future of our food systems. Some specific examples of analyses which can be conducted include:
- assessing how shifting the subsidies currently provided to animal agriculture would impact the price of alternative proteins if it was put towards the crops used to make alternative proteins
- determining the true cost of meat considering all of the externalized costs such as environmental pollution, water scarcity, land degradation, greenhouse gas emissions, factory farm worker exploitation, human healthcare, etc.
- investigating the amount of spending put towards healthcare for treating diseases which have been linked to consumption of animal products such as cardiovascular disease, colorectal cancer, and diabetes as well as the impact of increased antibiotic resistance resulting from factory farming on future healthcare costs
- predicting how the cost of cultivated meat will decrease and the associated impact on its share of the global protein market over time
The results of these analyses could be used to convince governments, corporations, investors, and the general public to realize the monetary benefit of transitioning to a food system without factory farming.’
Automation, civil and electrical engineering
Automation, civil and electrical engineering are needed to design and build facilities to producing cultivated proteins. See this resource on repurposing and retrofitting facilities for use in alternative protein manufacturing for further reading.
‘Work on cultivated meat would greatly benefit from more bioengineers and other similar engineers working on biotechnology as they could help design cell scaffolding and tissue structuring as well as cell growth factor optimization. In addition, they could help scale up the production of cultivated meats to a level in which they could be mass produced including bioreactor design and bioprocess design.’ (Career Guide for Ending Factory Farming, Jeffray Behr)
‘Chemical engineers can play a massive role in designing bioreactors for cultivated meat facilities, which will allow for these facilities to produce cells at large volumes with low complexity. Specifically, chemical engineers can help adapt bioreactors for cultivated meat cells, as opposed to the cell lines used in the medical industry. They can also develop and improve methods for adapting meat cells to suspension culture, as opposed to adherent cell culture (see this link to learn about adherent cell culture vs suspension cell culture). In addition, chemical engineers can discover and develop methods to capture useful side stream products that are produced during animal cell metabolism within cultivators, which can serve as an additional source of revenue for cultivated meat companies.’ (Career Guide for Ending Factory Farming, Jeffray Behr)
- This talk from Dr. Marianne Ellis explores the progress and challenges in designing large-scale bioreactors and bioprocesses
- This deep dive from the Good Food Institute is a great introduction to the use of bioreactors in cultivated meat production and the areas in which further research is needed.
Mechanical engineers are needed to design more efficient and scalable equipment for producing plant-based meat. Jeffray Behr writes, ‘Someone has to design the equipment used to make alternative proteins (i.e. extruders, shear cells, cultivated meat bioreactors, fermentors). This is where mechanical engineers could use their skills to help further develop the alternative protein space.’ (Career Guide for Ending Factory Farming, Jeffray Behr)
Process engineers are needed to design and improve production processes of making alternative meats. See this career guide to learn more.
This site has many suggestions of research problems that researchers specialising in different types of engineering could help solve.
See this overview of how research into policy and regulation can contribute to alternative proteins being adopted. You could also look at Jeffray Behr’s Career Guide to End Factory Farming for suggestions of how lawyers and food law experts are important for the adoption of alternative proteins.
This site features the pathways that researchers can follow to have an impact on cultivated proteins research. See this overview of how statistics research can contribute to alternative proteins being adopted.
In this Career Guide to End Factory Farming, Jeffray Behr writes, ‘Physics is useful for understanding the development of the structure of ingredients on a macro level for plant-based meat forming/texturizing and scaffolding for cultivated meat as well as the processes and equipment involved in forming these products (i.e. shear cell technology, fibre spinning, and 3D printing).’
This site features pathways that researchers can follow to have an impact on cultivated proteins research. See this overview of how physicists can contribute to the development of alternative proteins.
- The Good Food Institute have created a number of deep dives into the sciences of alternative proteins, on the science of plant-based meat, the science of cultivated meat and the science of fermentation.
- This free online course provides an introduction to the science of alternative protein development from the Good Food Institute.
- The Alternative Protein Fundamentals Programme is another great way to learn more about this direction. You can register for the next round of the course, however the curriculum is also available online. There are two tracks: the Technical Track which focuses on scientific research, and the Policy and Entrepreneurship Track which focuses on regulatory hurdles and business opportunities.
- This online course provides an Australia-specific introduction to cellular agriculture.
- See the GFI course database for additional online courses.
- See this career guide from Jeffray Behr offering advice on how students from a wide range of disciplines can enter the alternative proteins space (and suggesting many research questions).
- This student guide from the Good Food Institute covers many aspects of navigating the alternative protein space.
- This career guide from Animal Advocacy Careers explores opportunities for working on alternative proteins and how to decide if a research role in this area would be a good fit for you.
- If you want to enter industry, Talist can help you find a career in the alternative proteins field.
- This website identifies majors that will be useful for a career in cellular agriculture.
- Cultivating Careers in Alternative Proteins is a podcast exploring how to start a career in this space.
- Here is a database of research tools relating to cultivated meat from GFI.
- OpenCellAg is building an open access repository of data and tools.
This collaborative researcher directory from the Good Food Institute can help you find other researchers working on clean meat. You could also add yourself to GFI’s talent database if you’re looking for opportunities in this area.
Apply for our coaching and we can connect you directly with researchers and potentially mentors who can help you refine your research ideas. You can also apply to join our community if you’re interested in connecting with other students specifically.
Apply for our database of potential supervisors if you’re looking for formal supervision and take a look at our advice on finding a great supervisor for further ideas.
Join the GFI community to attend seminars, sign up for GFI’s careers call if you want regular advice and support on how to make progress in this area and explore the GFI careers portal to learn about the career opportunities in this field.
You could also consider creating a research community at your current university. GFI anticipates this being one of the most valuable things that aspiring researchers can do to advance this field. They have many resources available to guide you on how to do this, including:
A few examples of research labs working on alternative proteins:
- Mark Post at Maastricht University
- David Kaplan at Tufts University
- Marianne Ellis at Bath University
- Iftach Nachman Lab at Tel Aviv University
- Shulamit Levenberg Lab at the Technion
- George Church Lab at Harvard Medical School
Explore other options:
- See the Good Food Institute’s collaborative researcher directory to find other researchers.
- The Good Food Institute maintains a course database which you can find here.
- See this list of courses related to alternative proteins compiled by Jeffray Behr.
- Our funding database can help you find potential sources of funding if you’re a PhD student interested in this research direction.
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This profile was last updated 31/12/2022. Thanks to Michelle Hauser and Marie Krátká for first creating this profile. Thanks to Simone Costa, Jeffray Behr, Amy Huang and Seren Kell for helpful feedback on this profile. All errors remain our own.
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